Theology and Agency in Early Modern Literature 9781108418843, 9781108292191, 1108418848

What can I do? To what degree do we control our own desires, actions, and fate - or not? These questions haunt us, and h

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Theology and Agency in Early Modern Literature
 9781108418843, 9781108292191, 1108418848

Table of contents :
Cover......Page 1
Half-title page......Page 3
Title page......Page 5
Copyright page......Page 6
Dedication......Page 7
Epigraph......Page 8
Contents......Page 9
Acknowledgements......Page 10
Introduction......Page 13
Chapter 1 A History of Christian Agency......Page 44
Chapter 2 Will: Marlowe......Page 90
Chapter 3 Action: Revenge Tragedy......Page 118
Chapter 4 Struggle: Donne......Page 159
Chapter 5 Blame: Milton......Page 196
Afterword......Page 235
Notes......Page 237
Bibliography......Page 273
Index......Page 286

Citation preview


What can I do? To what degree do we control our own desires, actions, and fate – or not? These questions haunt us, and have done so, in various forms, for thousands of years. Timothy Rosendale explores the problem of human will and action relative to the divine – which Luther himself identified as the central issue of the Reformation – and its manifestations in English literary texts from 1580 to 1680. After an introduction which outlines the broader issues from Sophocles and the Stoics to twentieth-century philosophy, the opening chapter traces the theological history of the agency problem from the New Testament to the seventeenth century. The following chapters address particular aspects of volition and salvation (will, action, struggle, and blame) in the writings of Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Ford, Herbert, Donne, and Milton, who tackle these problems with an urgency and depth that resonate with parallel concerns today. timothy rosendale is Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, Texas. He is the author of Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and numerous articles and essays.


University Printing House, Cambridge cb2 8bs, United Kingdom One Liberty Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, ny 10006, USA 477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, vic 3207, Australia 314–321, 3rd Floor, Plot 3, Splendor Forum, Jasola District Centre, New Delhi – 110025, India 79 Anson Road, #06–04/06, Singapore 079906 Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Information on this title: doi: 10.1017/9781108292191 © Timothy Rosendale 2018 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2018 Printed in the United Kingdom by Clays, St Ives plc A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library. isbn 978-1-108-41884-3 Hardback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

In memoriam Richard Rosendale 1926–2015 beloved Dad

Ne let the man ascribe it to his skill, That thorough grace hath gained victory. If any strength we have, it is to ill, But all the good is Gods, both power and eke will. Spenser, The Faerie Queene I.x.1

Our wills and fates do so contrary run That our devices still are overthrown; Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. Shakespeare, Hamlet 3.2 (Player King)

Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way? Proverbs 20:24



page viii 1

Introduction 1 A History of Christian Agency


2 Will: Marlowe


3 Action: Revenge Tragedy


4 Struggle: Donne


5 Blame: Milton



223 225 261 274

Notes Bibliography Index



As my wife will tell you, I am somewhat hermitic by nature, and I certainly am a solitary writer. But that does not mean that I haven’t incurred numerous debts in the writing of this book, and I am grateful to and for all those who have assisted me in it. My thinking has benefited greatly from a list of students, colleagues, scholars, friends, enthusiasts, and skeptics too long to fully enumerate. I have received substantial support of various kinds from the English department and Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Southern Methodist University (SMU). I have profitably and pleasurably discussed the ideas treated in this book with numerous classrooms full of students, both graduate and undergraduate, and with many colleagues who have attended and responded to talks I’ve given at the Modern Language Association, Renaissance Society of America, Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and the Milton and Donne conferences. I have been honored to publish parts of chapters 3 and 4 in Early Modern Literary Studies 18.2 (2015) and the John Donne Journal 31 (2012); my thanks to them for permission to republish here in revised form. And I am truly grateful to the writers I discuss in this book – all of them – for thinking hard about important things, and encouraging us to do the same. Beyond these collective debts, I have many individual ones. Among my many wonderful colleagues in the SMU English department, I’ve especially appreciated the friendship, support, insight, and happy-hour conviviality of Dan Moss, Rajani Sudan, Greg Brownderville, Jayson Sae-Saue, Lisa Siraganian, and Willard Spiegelman; Willard’s well-deserved retirement will be keenly felt. Bruce Marshall gave wise and generous advice on my theological inquiries; Eric Barnes did the same when I ventured into philosophy. Every time I hear or talk to Debora Shuger, Tory Kirby, Steve McGrade, Richard Strier, or Heather Dubrow, I come away encouraged and improved. Many people at Cambridge have provided indispensable help: numerous editorial and production professionals, my very enthusiastic and helpful evaluators, and above all Sarah Stanton, who has been a patient viii



and supportive ally for years, and whose retirement will also be felt by many. And of course I owe something, and in some cases quite a lot, to each of the scholars whose work I engage in this book. Closer to home, my family is a constant but highly lovable distraction. While I did have to barricade myself in my study at certain points, and take some long walks, it’s hard (and unpleasant) to imagine what my home or life would be like without my lovely, talented, and supportive wife Lisa, my brilliant daughter Katie, and my joyous son Matt. My mom, Nella Rosendale, has given me existence, love, and a great deal else for an increasingly alarming number of years. And above all, this book is dedicated to the memory of my dearly loved and sorely missed father, Richard Rosendale, a man of great wisdom, faith, and love, who did more good, and sought less credit for it, than anyone I’ve ever known. His example taught me, among innumerable other things, that Calvinism, grace, and a vigorously good and accomplished life are by no means irreconcilable. It is one of the great blessings of my life that the best man I ever met was also my dad.


The problem of freewill from earliest times has occupied the best intellects of mankind and has from earliest times appeared in all its colossal significance. The problem lies in the fact that if we regard man as a subject for observation from whatever point of view – theological, historical, ethical or philosophic – we find the universal law of necessity to which he (like everything else that exists) is subject. But looking upon man from within ourselves – man as the object of our own inner consciousness – we feel ourselves to be free. Tolstoy, War and Peace

Literary Agents Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a play deeply concerned with the political implications of human will and action. Its first scene alerts us to the tribunes’ concern that Caesar might “soar above the view of men / And keep us all in servile fearfulness” (1.1.73–4).1 Cassius’ efforts in the following scene are aimed at uncovering precisely this repressed concern in Brutus, and here he suggests that the republic’s political problems are verging on the quasi-ontological: “this man / Is now become a god, and Cassius is / A wretched creature, and must bend his body / If Caesar carelessly but nod on him” (1.2.117–20). How has this mortal man – poor swimmer, vulnerable to illness, possibly epileptic – reached the threshold of apotheosis, and how have we become reciprocally diminished? Is it the will of the gods, or some other inexorable destiny? No, Cassius insists, it is our own fault. Men at sometime were masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.


It is only through the permissive inaction of the Roman nobility that Caesar has climbed this high; this suggests that a solution to the problem is available, and must necessarily consist of clearer will and more assertive 1



action. Only by decisively limiting Caesar’s agency will the nobility [and everyone] regain and maintain their own. The force of this argument might be said to lie in its rhetorical contradictions; it cannot be true that (a) Caesar is a god, and (b) we can do something about that. Cassius of course offers the first as hyperbole – obviously a deity would swim better than that – but it is what validates the second by positing some qualitative or ontological danger in Caesar’s ascendancy that if fully realized might snuff out our ability to act. This is certainly the construction that Brutus articulates in 2.1.10–34 when he resolves to “kill him in the shell,” but the play’s interrogation of Caesar’s status is recomplicated by the ambivalence of his own behavior. The wouldbe god sounds like a human in 2.2.26–7 when he says, “what can be avoided / Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?” But he says this as a way of dismissing Calpurnia’s bad dreams and other worrisome omens, which, he has already told us (2.2.10–12), he believes will evaporate before his glorious majesty. Even the category of danger itself is personified and subjected to the dominion of Caesar’s imperious confidence: “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he” (2.2.44–5). And when he finally agrees to humor his wife and stay home, he pointedly denies that his nonappearance at the Senate is due to a lack of ability or courage, or indeed to any cause external to himself. “Tell them that I will not come today,” he instructs Decius; “Cannot is false; and that I dare not, falser. / I will not come today; tell them so . . . / The cause is in my will: I will not come” (2.2.62–4, 2.2.71). Caesar’s disavowal of any lack or limitation in himself, his refusal to acknowledge his own action as in any way determined by external causes or constraints (even supernatural ones), and his assertion of an absolute, uncaused, and irresistible will, are the claims of a god. Caesar will reiterate these claims expansively in 3.1, where he declares his invulnerability to “sweet words” and flattery (3.1.35–46), his immutability and singularity (3.1.58–70), his unassailability (3.1.69), and perhaps even his infallibility (3.1.47). The conspirators, on the other hand, are dedicated to testing these claims, and, if they prove false (which they of course do), to destroying the quasi-god that has robbed them of their liberty and autonomy. Politically, the play explores the incompatibility of tyranny and republicanism, but perhaps the more complicated problem with tyranny is that it blurs the distinction between politics and theology; tyrants are in effect pseudo-deities who upset the calculus of political action by alienating and appropriating the agency and rights of their subjects. The conspirators accordingly recognize that if they are to retain their ability to act freely, the “god” must be done away with. While they succeed in the short term,

Literary Agents


though, by the play’s end their principals are both dead. True to Antony’s prediction (3.1.273), the spirit of Caesar haunts the second half of the play, both figuratively and literally; Brutus laments how it “turns our swords / In our own proper entrails” (5.3.94–5), and his last words are words of propitiation addressed to it in hopes of laying this ghost for good and preserving republican liberty. If Julius Caesar thus probes the vexed relations of individual human agency to a quasi-divine form of political sovereignty,2 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though at first blush a much more comic and less knotty play, digs even deeper into the problematics of agency; it offers both a withering critique of human will and action, and an encouraging vision of how such folly might be salvaged and given value. This is a play centrally remembered for its characters’ tendencies to act according to defective, wandering, misguided, corrupt wills which they neither control nor recognize as such. The play’s middle is built on the chaotic veerings of wills that are shown to be not just errant but drastically unstable, and the characters’ confidence in their own wills often seems strongest when they are least in control of them. The lovejuiced Lysander’s earnest assertion of rational deliberation in 2.2.121–2 (“The will of man is by his reason swayed, / And reason says you are the worthier maid”) is just one ironic instance of this constitutional misunderstanding: Demetrius and Titania too are utterly certain that their altered desires are the natural response to their incomparable objects, and even Egeus’ fierce determination to control his daughter evaporates rapidly when Theseus arbitrarily reverses his position on the matter. The mirth and marriage of the play’s final act should not cause us to forget the extraordinary extent to which the first four acts have taught us to, if I may generalize Theseus’ initial advice to Hermia, “question [y]our desires” (1.1.67) and the actions that issue from them. Comic as the play’s action is, it drives inevitably to a profoundly humbling conclusion: in their inability to control or even understand themselves, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (3.2.115). The desires and actions interrogated by the play are by no means limited to the romantic. The rude mechanicals meet to rehearse a romantic tragedy, but they are animated by desires for material and social achievement. When Bottom exhorts his fellow thespians to “Take pains; be perfect” (1.2.88), his statement taken out of context could serve as a Pelagian maxim: if you work hard enough at it, you can generate a kind of perfection that will generate its own merit and consequent reward. But as we know, perfection, dramatic or otherwise, is not going to be attainable by this crew, however highly they may think of their abilities; they simply misunderstand themselves and what they are doing so radically that they ruin



their dramatic and social objectives at every turn. Their play will be terrible, the potential value of its performance obliterated because they misapprehend the nature of performance itself, and Bottom is really no more of an ass when under Puck’s transformation than he is when reveling in his own thespian virtuosity. So then what possible value (besides unintended comedy) can their hopelessly inept performance have? Only that which is benevolently imputed to it, and the play is explicit about this. After Egeus does his best to dissuade Theseus from having Pyramus and Thisbe performed, the duke decides to see it anyway, since “never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it” (5.1.82–3). Hippolyta, aware of the potential for failure, rustic humiliation, and aristocratic mockery, is still wary: “I love not to see wretchedness o’ercharged, / And duty in his service perishing.” But her new husband assures her that their goodwill, and only that, will save the day. The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. Our sport shall be to take what they mistake, And what poor duty cannot do, Noble respect takes it in might, not merit.


After the players provide prompt and plentiful evidence of the radical insufficiency of their offering (all the while convinced of its excellence), even Hippolyta gives up, exclaiming that “This is the silliest stuff that I ever heard” (5.1.207). But Theseus keeps up his generous insistence that “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them,” to which his bride responds, “It must be your imagination, then, and not theirs.” And this is exactly the point: Bottom’s painstaking and entirely self-serious pursuit of perfection is, inevitably, an utter failure because he lacks the capacity for it in a hilariously absolute way. Since his imagination fails to offer anything of intrinsic merit to the duke, the only real value his performance will have is that with which the duke’s imagination and good will invest it. Critics have often focused on the patronizing elements in the final act, and they are there, but this should not obscure the importance of Theseus’ remarkable act of unmerited grace, granted to people who are too incapable and confused to even grasp their need for it – of unearned favor shown to hopelessly incompetent actors that are fully confident in their ability to act. The theology largely implicit in these Shakespearean treatments is addressed more directly in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the action of which begins with the fallen angels, after their failed revolt against God, awakening in their hellish prison and wondering what they could and should do

The Problems


next. The infernal “great consult” of Book 2, while ostensibly a discussion of strategic and tactical options, is also and really a theological discussion about the nature of God and what his subjects can and cannot do in relation to him. Moloch, still impressed with his own party’s show of force, and convinced things couldn’t get much worse than they have, advocates “open war” against a foe he conceives as a tyrant and torturer; the outcome of war won’t be worse, he says, might involve welcome annihilation or even success, and will in any case serve as revenge. Smooth Belial disputes all of Moloch’s principles as false, and argues that if they simply suffer nobly instead of fighting an unwinnable war, they will get used to their new situation, and in time God may even ease up. Mammon wants nothing to do with heaven and its hated overlord, and suggests that they “seek / Our own good from ourselves, and from our own / Live to ourselves” (2.252–4) through the “hard liberty” of peaceful, constructive work independent of God. Beelzebub the foreign-policy realist chides his colleagues for their delusional beliefs, reminds them that hell is not an independent empire but “strictest bondage” (2.321) under the dominion of God, who, “be sure, / In highth or depth, still first and last will reign / Sole King”; however, we might do him real damage via a terroristic proxy war. While the whole discussion is strategic in intent, in reality it is about the tactical implications of theology, and has many, many analogues throughout human history. The lesser demons who later get lost in divinity-mazes of “Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate, / Fixt Fate, Free will, Foreknowledge absolute” (2.559–60) are a parodically abstract recapitulation of the great peers’ more practical discussions of what God is like, and what they, and we, can (and cannot) do. Such questions are the subject of this book.

The Problems What can I do? The question, in its straightforward, interrogative sense (“My car won’t start; what can I do?”), implies options and potentialities, a range, perhaps not yet fully realized, of possible courses of action that might actually be performed by the subject in question, and that might even effectively solve a problem or bring about a desired state of affairs. But in its idiomatically rhetorical sense (“My dog died; ah well, what can I do?”), the implication is precisely, and absolutely, the opposite: helplessness, quiescence, resignation, and surrender to an unchangeable state of affairs. On one side, agency, control, change, options, action; on the other, the empty outlines of each.



This is not just a phenomenon of linguistic coincidence or irony; it is also a real problem that we confront on a daily basis. We exercise, and study, and save for retirement, and wear seatbelts, and forego deliciously fatty foods, and these are actions that make no sense unless there is a presupposition that by doing them we can shape and control our future wellbeing to some degree. But we also buy health and life insurance, in a reluctant acknowledgement that there is much that we do not control, much that we cannot effectively do. We can’t stop time, or be in two places at once, or live forever, or stop a speeding locomotive, or leap tall buildings in a single bound. The fact that the last two of these impossibilities are within the unusual capacities of Superman suggests that these limitations have fundamentally to do with humanity itself, that they are not only characteristic but symptomatic and indeed constitutive of what we are. Consider also the “Serenity Prayer” associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”3 Surely this is not a challenge specific to alcoholics; it is one of the central axes of human existence, an unending pursuit of a wisdom that fundamentally orders our life and actions in the world. Indeed, the Serenity Prayer was not written by a recovering alcoholic, nor specifically for that audience, but by the great twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr,4 and that fact indicates in turn that the tension under discussion is not just a linguistic phenomenon or a mundane difficulty, but also a philosophical and theological problem of the first order.5 A perceptive graduate student of mine once made the following observation: “If there’s one doctrine that Christianity is widely liked for, it’s grace, and if there’s one doctrine that Christianity is widely disliked for, it’s predestination. But the more you read up on the theology, the more inescapably you realize that they are virtually the same thing.”6 What could be bad about grace, or good about predestination? How is it that grace, the gratuitous overflow of God’s goodness, has such a grim corollary, and, conversely, how can that iron corollary itself be indicative of divine love? What, in other words, is the price of grace – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many other theologians have passionately maintained that grace, while by definition free, cannot be cheap – and what are the upsides of election and reprobation? Theology and Agency is importantly about these paradoxes, and in a broader sense it is about even more complex questions of human agency that link concrete actions to vast and abstract principles of theology and philosophy. It will argue that while we often associate modern (and early

The Problems


modern) subjectivity with autonomy and an unconstrained freedom to act, the dynamics of subjectivity and action are much more complex than that, and the history of these phenomena do not form a linear narrative of the free subject emerging, butterfly-like, from an oppressive history of subjugation and misbelief, to act in true and rational freedom. Critics and theorists of the last half-century and more – Marxist, psychoanalytic, structuralist, poststructuralist, New Historicist – have of course recognized this, and have argued that the bourgeois or essentialist or poststructuralist subject is neither autonomous nor free. But this basic recognition – that what looks and feels like individual agency might actually be a derivative effect of larger and overwhelmingly powerful agents or causes – is not new (and indeed, some of its modern versions are considerably less sophisticated than their neglected predecessors), nor are counter-critiques of its more totalized incarnations. Dolora Wojciehowski argues persuasively that “the dominant critical paradigms of the late twentieth century recast, in numerous unacknowledged ways, earlier discussions of freedom and power. Early modern theories of will bear a striking resemblance to contemporary theories of the limitations of will, subjecthood, and linguistic expression.”7 Though the early modern, she contends, “functions in many ways as the unconscious of contemporary theory” – that is, what it has sought to repress or distance itself from – the two discourses share a “mutual acknowledgment of the bondage of the subject to various determinisms (such as ideology or divine Providence), together with their shared desire for a subject that is, despite its limitations, willful (e.g., capable of political resistance or ethical choice).” The basic problematics of agency, that is to say, have long been recognized, and have actually changed surprisingly little in the last two millennia, in spite of the different forms in which the problem has been conceived and discussed. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the question was pursued primarily in theological form,8 and in this book I will attempt to demonstrate that we can better understand early modern British literature when we read it in light of the perennial theological concerns that so compelled the culture in which it was written. The influential work of Stephen Greenblatt is an instructive example of these dynamics. His seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning ends with an epilogue of personal narrative in which he describes his initial intentions to understand the role of human autonomy in the construction of identity. It seemed to me the very hallmark of the Renaissance that middle-class and aristocratic males began to feel that they possessed such shaping power over


Introduction their lives, and I saw this power and the freedom it implied as an important element in my own sense of myself. (256)

In the course of his research and writing, however, Greenblatt’s assumptions were radically revised, as the human subject itself began to seem remarkably unfree, the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society. Whenever I focused sharply upon a moment of apparently autonomous self-fashioning, I found not an epiphany of identity freely chosen but a cultural artifact. If there remained traces of free choice, the choice was among possibilities whose range was strictly delineated by the social and ideological system in force. (256)

The trajectory of this narrative indicates that Greenblatt initially intended to write a book in the vein of Pico, Burckhardt, and Cassirer (that is to say, a celebration of the emergence of a new sort of autonomous individual subjectivity in the Renaissance), but ended up compelled to write one in the vein of Althusser and Foucault (that is to say, a story of heteronomously constituted pseudo-subjects) instead. It is perhaps precisely because of this transitional evolution that Renaissance Self-Fashioning proved to be such a field-changing book. Fundamentally at issue here, in both historical/ literary analysis and the self-conscious act of critical practice itself (with one indeed encapsulated in the other), are radically different notions of human agency and subjectivity: one that sees it as thrillingly, heroically emergent in the early modern period,9 and one that considers it always and perhaps increasingly constrained by political, social, economic, and psychological forces that simultaneously constitute and displace the subject, and thus eviscerate the myth of autonomy. After narrating the supersession of the first by the second in his own work, Greenblatt meditates elegiacally on his own “overwhelming need to sustain the illusion that I am the principal maker of my own identity,” because “to abandon self-fashioning is to abandon the craving for freedom, and to let go of one’s stubborn hold upon selfhood, even selfhood conceived as a fiction, is to die” (257). This is a wonderfully lyrical articulation of late-twentieth-century irony and loss, caught between a compelling recognition and a price one is reluctant to pay – a subject in a cage that continues to tell itself that it is free. But despite the supersessional relation of the Burckhardt/Cassirer and Althusser/Foucault impulses in Greenblatt’s narrative, he inherits from both of them a fundamentally secularized perspective that marginalizes the religious, and this is a curiously overdetermined exclusion from a subject that in the early modern period was primarily understood and disputed in

The Problems


deeply religious terms. I discuss this problem with regard to Greenblatt and others in the introduction to my Liturgy and Literature, and in Greenblatt’s (and consequently the field’s) case this dynamic is ongoing. His 2010 book Shakespeare’s Freedom addresses Shakespeare’s probing of absolutes – aesthetic, social, political – in a world increasingly “pervaded by absolutist claims” (2), and perceptively suggests that “these limits served as the enabling condition of his particular freedom” (1). As we might expect from the most influential early modern scholar in a generation, Greenblatt’s analyses are often brilliantly nuanced and illuminating, but it is telling that his engagement with theology ends on the book’s third page. There, after a page-long overview of how in English Calvinism “divine decisions were incomprehensible and irrevocable, unconstrained by any form of mediation, contract, or law” (2; this is itself a dubious claim), he closes off the subject abruptly with an assertion that “Shakespeare was not a theologian, and his work does not meddle in doctrinal claims” (3), and the book pivots decisively to its central focus on worldly forms of constraint and normativity. In these often-wonderful discussions, religion reappears rarely, and always as something else: an analogy, a vocabulary, an ideological masking, a category of sociopolitical division or domination. Greenblatt is of course entitled to focus on whatever he wants to, but his cursory nod to (and then abandonment of) theology is a decisive indication of what really matters to him – and as Debora Shuger and others have influentially and correctly argued, this kind of analytical hierarchy gets its object all wrong: for early modern Christians (that is, virtually everyone), religion was the foundation, horizon, and primary language of their existence, not just an allegory of their psychosocial lives.10 To assume otherwise is not only condescending to the past; it virtually guarantees that one will not really understand it. And ironically, it is arguably a critical revivification of the heroic postreligious subject in the form of the secular, analytical modern critic, lifting the veil of religion to reveal the true life of things past. Is this not Burckhardt’s secular bourgeois myth revenant, reborn out of the account of its own demise? Theology and Agency engages directly and seriously with religious issues that are often ignored or marginalized in the work of Greenblatt and other early modernists. Cassirer correctly observes that Renaissance philosophy sought “intellectual formulas of balance between the ‘medieval faith in God and the self-confidence of Renaissance man,’”11 but his exhilarating accounts of Valla, Ficino, Pico, and Bruno frequently seem to merge into his own excitement at the narrative of humanity liberating itself from



various bonds and becoming its own maker. Cusanus and other nostalgists may have tried to harmonize Christianity and humanism, but Bruno, for Cassirer, represented the inevitable: “the ideal of humanity includes the ideal of autonomy; but as the ideal of autonomy becomes stronger, it dissociates itself more and more from the realm of religion – the realm into which Cusanus and the Florentine Academy had tried to force the concept of humanity.”12 Both Greenblatt’s displacements and Cassirer’s bias, however, seem positively benign compared to the outright hostility of figures like Alan Sinfield, who does discuss religion at length, but whose lacerating analyses of early Protestantism seem more intent on denouncing its irrationality and antihumanism than on trying to understand what Renaissance writers actually cared about and wrestled with in their texts.13 In some respects, there will be some overlap in this book between his work and mine, but in others, they could not be more different: Theology and Agency is much more interested in inquiry than in polemic, more attentive to tensions than contradictions, more in search of important problems than doctrinaire solutions, more aimed at illumination than condemnation. It will acknowledge and explore the centrality of Christianity and its theological conflicts to early modern culture, and it will do so not to denounce them or to proselytize but to better understand its subject. Practically speaking, this means that I will assiduously try to avoid fitting the astoundingly complex literary texts I treat into lopsidedly Procrustean beds of one sort or another, reducing this infinite variety to unproblematic Calvinist determinism, or to libertarian atheist humanism, or to whatever else one might want to celebrate or execrate. The texts, both individually and collectively, resist such reductions precisely because they recognize these problems as problems, as conflicts with which we have to live and struggle even though – indeed, because – they admit of no easy answer, and such irresolutions are often at the very core of what we are. I will, of course, have things to say about what I think is going on in the texts as well as around them, but in so doing I have tried to be faithful to the complexity and conflictedness of the texts and questions themselves. Shakespeare, it is true, was not himself a theologian or doctrinal polemicist. But we will never well comprehend his works, or those of his contemporaries, if we decline to attend deeply and openly to the theological principles and problems that framed his world’s view of itself and its selves. That doing so might help us understand our own world and selves a little better is an additional benefit devoutly to be wished.

Literature, Philosophy, Theology: Ancient


Literature, Philosophy, Theology: Ancient The problem of agency has been a central preoccupation of Western civilization since at least the classical Greek era, and has followed two related (and often intertwined) streams. One, relatively secular and running from the ancient Greeks to philosophers and scientists of the present day, has inquired into the question of causation: to what degree are our choices and actions externally caused, and to what degree can they be said to really originate within our inner selves? And what does that in turn imply about morality and accountability? The other stream, dominant from the first through eighteenth centuries (though also of considerable importance before and after), has framed these questions in a specifically theological context: to what degree is human freedom constituted, coordinated, negotiated, limited, or erased by transcendent agents like God? Consider, for example, the plenitude of Old Testament plots and characters that reiteratively enact the same master narrative: in a world created and ruled by a sovereign God, a person, family, tribe, or nation knows what God wills, tries to assert its own autonomous will and do what it wants regardless of God, and consequently undergoes some combination of destruction, punishment, correction, and redemptively submissive realignment – with all roads ultimately ending at either the first or last of these. The repeated lesson, from Genesis to Malachi, is that the omnipotent divine will, while it might be temporarily and misguidedly resisted, cannot be subverted or overcome by human agents, which can only align with it or be destroyed. Furthermore, the logic of divine favor and disfavor is itself sometimes inscrutable: Genesis 4 tells us that “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect” – but is unclear as to why God responded so differently to the two brothers. Why are Abel, Abram, Jacob, David, and others singled out for special preference? Explanations are not always forthcoming; sometimes they just are. At the same time, though, while one might expect an uncompromisingly one-sided account of God’s total sovereignty and control, Old Testament narratives repeatedly suggest that human will has considerable latitude and power. Adam and Eve make a choice which, if immensely regrettable, appears to be legitimately theirs; Noah chooses to be faithful to God, and as a result is saved from drowning to reboot the human race; Abraham and his heirs, despite their sometimes-dicey personal natures, enter into a voluntary covenant with God; a number of judges and kings turn away from God, with dire national consequences, and others procure collective



blessing through their righteousness; various prophets (most famously Jonah) flee their calling and are brought back to it; and God is even on occasion open to persuasion from those faithful to him, and willing to relent, change his mind, revise his own will.14 The biblical dynamics of human and divine agency, in short, are complex from the start. “A man’s heart deviseth his way,” says Proverbs 16:9, “but the LORD directeth his steps.”15 These tensions reach their agonizing apogee in the synoptic gospels’ account of Christ’s anguish at Gethsemane, where he begs, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt. 26:39). Christ’s momentary reluctance is a striking moment of intratrinitarian friction, followed by an exemplary submission to the will of the Father and a reaffirmation of the consensus that presumably preceded the advent of the Son.16 A great deal of subsequent Christian theology has explored why all other humans have found this so perplexingly difficult, and this will be discussed at length in Chapter 1, but the Judeo-Christian tradition was not alone in pondering the nature and parameters of human action. The ancient and classical Greeks considered the problem in both secular and religious terms. It is something of a commonplace that in the Homeric epics there is little sense of genuinely human-initiated action. Rather, the admittedly remarkable acts of humans are pervasively contextualized as subject to Olympian control, supervision, manipulation, inspiration, interference; human agency is secondary, subordinate, and epiphenomenal to that of the gods.17 This changed in the exuberantly secular Athenian golden age in the fifth century BC, which was characterized by a growing sense of rational human capacity (and religious skepticism) epitomized in the Protagorean dictum that “man is the measure of all things.” And that confidence itself reversed when plague and the Peloponnesian War reminded Athens of humanity’s limitations and failures – only now, having grown skeptical of the gods and disillusioned with itself, Athens lapsed into a worldview of anarchic chance, and a culture of drift and anomie that the philosophers attempted to stabilize.18 In a marvelously illuminating 1957 essay on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c.430 BC), Bernard Knox reads the play as an allegorical critique of the Periclean enlightenment’s overconfidence in human agency. Oedipus is in many ways an ideal Athenian: smart, courageous, rational, active, determined, a seeker of experience and knowledge.19 He is from the first a swaggering tyrannos, fully confident in his ability to deliver Thebes from its travails as he has in the past, and attributed with what Knox calls a “quasi-divinity” that is at odds with humble veneration of the gods.

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As the play progresses, he and Jocasta are increasingly dismissive of oracular prophecy, and by implication the Apollonian deity behind it – “the oracles,” Oedipus will eventually agree with his mother/wife (971) before learning otherwise, “are worthless”20 – but as we learn about their prior histories we learn that they have for a long time acted on the assumption that divine power and foreknowledge can be circumvented by human effort. Told by the oracle that their son would murder his father, Laius and Jocasta protect themselves by sending their infant boy to die on a hillside; given the same prophecy about himself, plus the prospect of incestuous coupling with his mother, Oedipus flees Corinth so as to never see or endanger Polybos and Merope again. But his relentless pursuit of truth in the play, in which he brings to bear all his admirable qualities, is precisely what destroys him by demonstrating the inescapability of the divine prophecies he had spent his entire life attempting to subvert. The play’s great irony is thus that vigorous, independent human action ends up revealing its own impotence. Knox concludes that the vicissitudes of his astonishing career are revealed as the working not of Jocasta’s blind chance nor the anarchic goddess Chance but of the old “divine chance,” theia tychê, the expression of divine foreknowledge, the mode of fulfilment of Apollo’s oracle. This intellectual progress of Oedipus and Jocasta, which parallels the intellectual progress of the era of enlightenment, has been carefully set in an ironic dramatic framework where it is exposed as wrong from the start.21

Knox follows this with a breathtaking feat of lexical collocation that demonstrates how the play’s vocabulary, echoes, and puns have been subtly making this case all along. Creon puts the case more pointedly at play’s end when he tells his ruined brother-in-law that “now even you will trust the God . . . Do not seek to be master in everything” (1445, 1522). Sophocles’ play thus articulates in embryonic literary form the problem of divine and human agency, but it was not until later centuries and particularly the Stoic philosophers that this issue was sustainedly posed in abstract form.22 In the fourth century, Plato wrote on necessity and desert in his Myth of Er (Republic 10) and insisted elsewhere on the supremacy of divine providence over fate, and Aristotle wrote, in different places, about causation (Metaphysics V–VI) and ethical responsibility (Nicomachean Ethics III), but the full recognition of the freewill/determinism problem is generally credited to Epicurus immediately after. Long and Sedley write that “Epicurus’ problem is this: if it has been necessary all along that we should act as we do, it cannot be up to us, with the result that



we would not be morally responsible for our actions at all.”23 The bestknown element of the libertarian Epicurean/Lucretian solution to this dilemma is the postulate that general causation (quite rigidly implied in the steady motion of Democritean atomism) is interrupted by random atomic swerves, thereby making indeterminacy and in turn genuine will and choice possible.24 The Stoics, on the other hand, insisted on the thoroughness of causation. Every event, they argued, is the result of a combination of causes so rigorous that their result was effectively necessary; if we could understand causation fully, we would understand that everything that happens could not have been otherwise.25 This causal system might be understood in various terms – as Susanne Bobzien helpfully titles a subchapter of her book, “Fate is God is Providence is Nature is the Active Principle”26 – but this does not affect its ironclad logical rigor. As Cicero would later write, “fate should be, not the ‘fate’ of superstition, but that of physics, an everlasting cause of things – why past things happened, why present things are now happening, and why future things will be.”27 Such a system manifestly carries a risk of paralytic fatalism, and indeed the opponents of Stoicism regularly accused it of eviscerating human action and responsibility. But the Stoics themselves saw a kind of wise realism as not only central to their system but also something necessary for proper discernment and action to take place, and Chrysippus in particular, while not abrogating the Stoic commitment to causal determinism, argued in various ways that human action is not simply puppetry. His famous simile of the dog tied to a moving cart is more complex than mere fatalism, as such a dog has a basic choice of whether to assent to the cart’s movement or not. This gives the dog an array of options that includes voluntary cooperation, being dragged, and even a range of freedom within the radius of his leash; as Hippolytus observed, if the dog “wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not follow it is compelled in any case.”28 Chrysippus also proposed more complex and collaborative notions of causation, as Cicero explains in On Fate 29. Some events in the world are simple, [Chrysippus] says, others are complex . . . if a fate is of the form ‘Oedipus will be born to Laius,’ it will not be possible to add ‘regardless of whether or not Laius has intercourse with a woman.’ For the event is complex and ‘co-fated.’29

Diogenianus similarly cites Chrysippus as saying that many things cannot come about without our wanting them and applying the most intense determination and efforts over them, since it is together with this, he says, that they are fated to come about.30

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Our actions, that is, are part of the causal order of fate but are also authentically our own, and this is the basis of ethical accountability: our own nature and will, while themselves shaped by innumerable causal factors, partially determine how we respond to the causes that impose themselves upon us. The Stoics recognized (as Calvin would many centuries later) that causation, whether that of physics or theology, has the exculpatory potential to work against ethics. Consequently, they insisted upon the moral responsibility of the actor, and the need to treat even fully caused situations as “doubtful contingencies”31 in which we are accountable factors. That response to external causes incorporates the moral nature of the responder into the network of causation, and is what renders individuals responsible for their actions even in a fully determined universe.32 Cicero reports Chrysippus as writing that “assent will be in our power . . .. [and] although prompted from outside, will thereafter move through its own force and nature,” and Aulus Gellius tells us of his contempt for “those who, whether through laziness or through wickedness, are harmful and reckless . . . [and] take refuge in the necessity of fate.”33 In short, as Dorothea Frede has put it, the Stoics “relied on a distinction between the antecedent or external and the principal or ‘inner’ cause to explain how human beings are part of the web of causal interconnections in such a way that there is room for personal responsibility . . . human beings are as much part of the causal network as is all else.”34 While Oedipus Rex predates the explicit formulation of these philosophical problems, they can be backread rather neatly onto the play. Yes, Oedipus’ life may have been a grand attempt to subvert prophecy, but does the fact of the oracle’s infallible foreknowledge free its objects from guilt? Clearly not: Laius’ infanticidal efforts and Oedipus’ road rage and opportunism appear to have been freely chosen and culpable actions – but even these impious efforts to outmaneuver the gods were coordinated and integrated into a universal causal network such that they became important parts of the destiny they were attempting to evade.35 Oedipus himself at the end seems to regard the recognition of both fate and his own culpability not just as compatible, but as necessary counterparts of one another: “it was Apollo, friends, Apollo, / that brought me this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion, / But the hand that struck me / was none but my own” (1328–32). Similar questions of will and context have driven considerable scholarly discussion of the incalculably influential Augustine. The classicist Albrecht Dihle influentially argued that “St. Augustine was, in fact, the inventor of our modern notion of will,” whose great achievement was the formulation



of a theory of grace that was “an adequate philosophical description of what the Biblical tradition taught about man’s fall, salvation, and moral conduct.”36 Michael Frede subsequently controverted this by instead tracing the origin of the idea of a will (prohairesis) that is free (eleutheria) to the late Stoic Epictetus, who developed the idea from the Stoic notion of assent. From the second century, early Christians found these principles “highly congenial,” and consequently “adopted the Stoic notion of a free will.”37 From there it passed on (by way of modified Platonism) to the patristic theologians, and through them eventually to “almost universal acceptance” (103). Origen, according to Frede, deployed a “basically Stoic” view of free will to combat “various forms of Gnosticism and astral determinism” (120), and listed the belief in consequential human freedom as essential to Christianity, second only to belief in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (107).38 Augustine subsequently developed a view of the will that was “pervasively Stoic” (155) in his efforts to vindicate God from the imputations of Manicheanism and locate the responsibility for our predicament squarely in misused human choice. In his pessimism, his priority of belief over cognition, his adoption of “the Stoic view that we have entirely lost our freedom” (170), his belief in an all-encompassing providential causation, his emphasis on both the responsibilities and the limitations of human will, his basic division of humanity into the wise/virtuous/ free and the foolish/vicious/unfree, and his description of a now-defective but nonetheless culpable liberum arbitrium (the equivalent of the Stoic eph’ hemin [168], or what is “up to us”) that lacks true freedom, Frede argues, Augustine’s embrace of Stoic principles is substantially deeper and more pervasive than Origen’s, and it charted a new course for the religion and indeed the civilization of the West. Frede is persuasive in his contention that early Christianity did not exist in a bubble, and was rather deeply affected by the intellectual ferment of its time; indeed, Paul himself saw fit on at least one occasion to engage with and make use of Stoic ideas (see Acts 17), and the extent of his relationship to various strands of Greek philosophy is a matter of continuing scholarly debate. On the other hand, Frede’s account pays relatively little attention to the internal history of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which Dihle sees Augustine, and while Frede is not an obsessive indexer, Dihle’s extensive index of scriptural citations is a fair indicator of his much greater attention to this. Perhaps they are both importantly and compatibly right: maybe Stoic philosophy provided Augustine with the conceptual vocabulary he needed to render a systematic account of what in the Bible appears conflicted or ambiguous. Either or both of these two systems, that is to say,

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could have played a formative role in the development of the notion of human free will as a properly conceived philosophical question. And it is both important and quite marvelous that in each of these scenarios, the agential subject that we consider so indispensable to humanity emerges, not in a vacuum or as a first principle, but precisely in the context of an inescapably powerful transcendent agent or causal system. Whatever their differences, Judeo-Christianity and Stoicism crucially shared a view of the cosmos as highly caused,39 and this appears to have provoked necessary reflection on what role we might (or might not) have to play in it. Though a recent advertising campaign for Under Armour sportswear proclaims confidently that “Will trumps fate” and “I will what I want,”40 the ancients recognized that things are not so simple; as Robert Kane and others have observed, the very development of causal and determinist concepts represents a “higher level of awareness”41 than the common, unreflective, and often unarticulated assumption that we simply will and act and that’s all there is to it. Perhaps this higher awareness of what is not up to us is the necessary precondition for properly theorized meditation on what might be.

Literature, Philosophy, Theology: [Early] Modern If we turn our attention from past millennia to our own present historical moment, we will find to our chagrin (or perhaps delight?) that the intervening twenty-odd centuries have not structurally changed this basic problem, let alone resolved it. There have been ebbs and shifts over time, of course, but the central tension between our experiential conviction of our freely willing selfhood on the one hand, and on the other the compelling logics of causation and constraint, remains vitally active. The Enlightenment, for example, tended generally to discount the actively determining power of a deity, turning God first into an absentee watchmaker and then into abstract and inexorable laws of nature; this rational determinism was undermined in turn by the rise of quantum physics in the twentieth century, which reintroduced Epicurean randomness into our understanding of the universe – even as the biological and social sciences moved toward increasingly determinist models of physical, psychological, and sociopolitical function. Meanwhile, philosophers of our own time continue to debate the nature, conditions, and problematics of human agency in ways that do not differ greatly from their precedents.42 The so-called “incompatibilists” among them contend that genuine freedom is irreconcilable with



determinism, and they split into two opposed parties which favor one of these principles to the exclusion of the other: “hard determinists” who argue that all we do is caused, and “libertarians” who argue that what we want and do is up to us in some volitionally undetermined way that originates in us. In between are a wide swath of “compatibilists” who make the case for the reconcilability of freedom and determinism. Modern hard (incompatibilist) determinists are attacked, as were the Stoics and Augustinians, by compatibilists and libertarians for overapplying the principles of causation, and misconstruing it as constraint, coercion, compulsion, necessity, control, mechanism, or fatalism, such that we have no means of resisting it or shaping what we do – thus arguably promoting a view of humans as puppets whose actions are fully determined and therefore without freedom or moral content. Modern philosophical libertarians are, like their predecessors, attacked by hard determinists and compatibilists for underestimating the force of causation, and insisting that human actions emerge out of an arbitrary and undetermined free will that they cannot explain without resorting to mystery or sheer randomness (which is no more morally meaningful than puppetry, and arguably less).43 And compatibilism is dismissed by incompatibilists on both sides as a mugwumpy “quagmire of evasion” (William James44) and “wretched subterfuge” (Kant) that in its people-pleasing attempts to synthesize irreconcilable principles settles for fuzziness, or incoherence, or paradox, or a superficial notion of freedom as simply an unconstrained ability to do what we want – which is to say, a theory of mere free action rather than free will, which sidesteps the crucial question of whether and how we exercise directive control over our own wills themselves.45 To a sometimes-astonishing degree, these present-day debates reiterate, and are anticipated by, much older soteriological arguments over the role humans do or do not play in their own salvation. In Chapter 1, we will see Paul recognizing a disjunction between will and action, and taking an explicitly determinist position on justification while James (Saint, not William) implicitly argues for compatibilism; Augustine and Pelagius withdrawing from initially compatibilist views to increasingly determinist and libertarian ones that respectively magnify and minimize the role of divine grace in salvation; Aquinas attempting to harmonize the two positions, and Ockham and Bradwardine re-separating them; Luther insisting on the impossibility of such compatibilism while Erasmus argues for its moral necessity; and Arminian Protestants resisting Calvin’s firm determinism by retreating to a neo-Catholic compatibilism, even as some postTridentine Catholics sought to strengthen and reassert their church’s

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commitment to the total sovereignty of a graciously determinist God. And in the chapters that follow, I will pursue the centrality and theologicality of these issues in a series of entirely canonical Renaissance literary texts that embody and explore them with breathtaking nuance and depth. How do we account for this issue’s remarkable durability, its profound and perpetual interest for philosophy, theology, and – consequently but no less importantly – literature? It seems to me that the most abstract and overarching reason, under the shadow of which all others operate, is the radical intractability of the agency problem: simply put, as I roughly sketched out above, there are problems with every imaginable point on the spectrum of possible answers. This is because we are dealing with two principles, each of which is (a) logically or experientially compelling, (b) insufficient in itself, and (c) likely irreconcilable with the other; in other words, causal necessity and freedom are at once necessary, incomplete, and at odds with each other. Most people, for example, believe that events occur because they have causes. Whether those causes belong to Newtonian physics, or divine providence, or common sense is less important than the bedrock principle that we do not live in a universe of random chaos in which literally anything could happen at any moment and for no reason; our ability to function depends on certain forms of logical regularity including that of cause and effect. At the same time, most people feel an equally potent experiential conviction that we are self-directing, autonomous agents who make real choices and generate our own wills. When we voluntarily do or want something, that very voluntariness (from Latin voluntas, will, choice < velle, to will) both reflects and constitutes our senses of self: my free, unconstrained desires, choices, and actions are the expression and essence of my individual personhood. While each principle thus seems important and true and necessary, however, neither seems sufficient. If causation is rigorously true, if nothing happens undeterminedly and everything that does happen occurs in single and predictable consequence of specific causes, then the resultant universe looks like a machine overseen by Fate or Laplace’s Demon or a ubiquitously omnipotent God, and our own actions and wills like mere gears in that machine, acting only because acted upon, and potentially ineligible for choice or moral responsibility.46 That prospect is unsatisfactory to most, but the inverse is no better: if people are in fact the radical generators of their own desires and acts, and are not driven by causes outside their consciousness, a number of equally important general assumptions break down, and the world begins to look like a frighteningly disconnected and random place in which logic and language and



intersubjectivity threaten to collapse. Do we really want people to be their own causes, their desires and actions purely self-originating? When people act in ways that seem truly uncaused and unconstrained by external factors (like a stranger who once ran his fingers through my hair as he passed me on the sidewalk in downtown Dallas), we regard them with fear and perturbation as lunatics that we cannot deal with, or indeed even understand, in any stable way, and we often do not regard them as morally responsible for their inexplicable and thus meaningless actions. Since determinism and libertarianism appear to be both necessary and insufficient, one sensible response is to not choose one and reject the other, but to reconcile and synthesize what appear to be two utterly essential principles of our existence as rational, moral beings. Unfortunately, this has not proven an easy fix, as the forces that pull determinism and libertarianism apart make the middle ground a very difficult place to occupy coherently; the two principles often appear to work against and indeed toward the exclusion of each other (and of moral responsibility), and the logical tendency of each toward hegemony only sharpens the insufficiency of each principle on its own. If determinism of whatever sort is true, then what kind of uncaused phenomenon can escape its rigor, and how, and in what sense could such acausality be meaningful rather than random? If libertarianism is true, then what becomes of our systematic understanding of causes and effects, and what reliable boundary could stably separate (or interrelate) the two and keep them from working against each other? If conclusive compromises or resolutions to any of these questions were actually available, surely we would have discovered and agreed to them by now. But we have not, and instead of settled answers we are left with paradox, tension, antinomy, and unending renegotiation. Why do we not just leave these insuperable problems alone and live our lives? As a practical matter, most of us do, but we continue to probe them in our more thoughtful moments because they touch so deeply and directly on fundamental principles of our existence and identity as humans. Even the most rudimentary self-understanding involves basic definitional inquiries. Who am I? What are my capacities and limits? What am I [in]capable of? What can I [not] do? What are the sources, nature, and relationship of my will and action? To what limits, principles, forces, or other agents am I subject and accountable, and how do they act on me? These versions of the agency question are essential to our concept of human selfhood, and they are constitutionally relational: ability and inability, will and action, force and principle, right and wrong, mind and body, self and other, subject and object, self and world. Such ongoing contests, between me

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and everything that presses back on me, provide a fundamental orientation in our efforts to understand both halves of that relationship. This tension is a central concern of philosophy, religion, and literature alike, and it continues to hold when we specify some of its component categories: action, character, and ethics. Though the Oxford English Dictionary offers the intuitive “to do something” as a definition of act, this is only minimally helpful; acting is not nearly so simple. As the full entry indicates, the English words act and agent both descend from the Latin agere, a word for which the Dictionary gives an astonishing range of senses ranging from motion to achievement to execution to performance (ludic or deceptive) to discourse. Accordingly, to act can mean to decide, record, ordain, decree, do, behave, carry out duties, fulfill, perform, feign, bring about, motivate, animate, exert influence, produce an effect, and more. In a related effort to understand just what action is, modern philosophers of action have sought to distinguish actions from mere occurrences, and to understand the significance of intention (and its corollary, responsibility) in differentiating the former from the latter. Such pursuits are clearly related to ethics and jurisprudence, and also to belief, desire, causation, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and the mind/body problem.47 One cardinal point of distinction between actions and mere occurrences is that the former emanate from more or less coherent, purposive subjects. A rock flying through the air is not performing an action, but the person who threw it has, and because of this – and a basic conviction that action and character are closely related – we intuitively incline to hold the person, but not the rock, responsible for whatever happens as a result. But what if, as hard determinists suggest, we are in effect the rock? Chrysippus’ efforts to reconcile determinism and responsibility involved a notion of character derived from geometry and physics. Cicero reports that Chrysippus resorts to his cylinder and spinning-top [or cone]: these cannot begin to move without a push; but once that has happened, he holds that it is thereafter through their own nature that the cylinder rolls and the top spins [or the cone goes in a circle]. “Hence,” he says, “just as the person who pushed the cylinder gave it its beginning of motion but not its capacity for rolling, likewise . . . assent will be in our power. And assent, just as we said in the case of the cylinder, although prompted from the outside, will thereafter move through its own force and nature.”48

Part of the network of causation, in other words, is character, the distinctive “shape” of which affects how an individual will respond to a particular causal



stimulus. Though this initially seems a reductive notion of character, we in fact see it experientially confirmed, or we at any rate deploy it, all the time: when the same thing (bereavement, perhaps, or illness, or sudden wealth or hardship) happens to two different people, and they respond in very different ways, we typically ascribe these different responses to character. Hume, too, took character to be an important form and element of causation. He argued in his Treatise of Human Nature (Book II, Part 3) that “our actions have a constant union with our motives,” and this constancy is a form of predictive necessity guaranteed by character. There is a general course of nature in human actions, as well as in the operations of the sun and the climate. There are also characters peculiar to different nations and particular persons, as well as common to mankind. The knowledge of these characters is founded on the observation of an uniformity in the actions, that flow from them; and this uniformity forms the very essence of necessity.49

In life and literature alike, we infer character from action, and especially from consistent patterns of it.50 This kind of necessity is not only desirable but essential; its opposite is not freedom but “mere chance,” the behavior of madmen. Were actions not generally both expressive of and driven by character, and the values and motives of which it is comprised, Hume argues, the world would not be a place in which we could confidently know or do anything involving other agents. As he would later write in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “it seems almost impossible, therefore, to engage, either in science or action of any kind, without acknowledging the doctrine of necessity, and this inference from motives to voluntary actions; from characters to conduct.”51 Without the intimate links between action and character, we would be powerless to infer character or predict action, or to understand either. The agency problem, then, does not simply relate to or bear upon the categories of action and character; it encompasses them, and is fundamental to their constitution. But things get even more interesting when we consider the actions of characters, and their ethical value and significance. Both Chrysippus and Hume (to take just two widely disparate examples) take the association of action and character to be necessary for moral responsibility.52 This is a principle so widely held that it seems simply intuitive: it is why we do not hold children or the cognitively impaired or the mentally ill fully accountable for their actions, on the understanding that their characters are insufficiently developed or cohesive to generate culpable action. It is a question that has occupied the entire history of Western

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philosophy: what exactly are the principles and conditions of moral accountability? Aristotle proposed some influential basic distinctions in his Nicomachean Ethics III, arguing that actions which result from ignorance, external coercion, or a true absence of alternatives (including not-doing) are not fully liable for praise or blame because they are not the voluntary acts of properly deliberative agents that could have done otherwise. This raises serious problems for hard-determinist accounts that are effectively mechanistic or coercive: if everyone’s own actions (and perhaps also their character) are inescapably caused, and only the actual is possible, it is difficult to see how one would be morally responsible for such actions. It also raises problems for hard-libertarian views, which release the subject from external causation only to lose it in vertiginous mysteries of unoriginated spontaneity that seem similarly (if inversely) inimical to moral responsibility. Between the machine of total determinism and the madhouse of random impulse – but also in negotiation between their essential underlying principles of external and internal causation – lies the space of ethics. The still-living American philosopher Harry Frankfurt has been especially acute and probing on these issues, and he will serve as the touchstone for the remainder of my philosophical rumination here. In a seminal 1969 essay that is still hotly discussed, Frankfurt challenged the central and nearly universal intuition that moral responsibility requires the condition that one could have done otherwise – what Frankfurt calls the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. (Milton’s God clearly demonstrates this principle in the third book of Paradise Lost when he explains that true, responsible faithfulness requires the liberty to have made other choices – hence the forbidden but available fruit.) But this assumption, he argues, is false; “a person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise.”53 How can this be? Frankfurt proposes a hypothetical situation in which one figure (Black) wants another (Jones) to perform a certain action. Black has the means to force Jones’ will and action, but prefers not to do so unless necessary, so Black waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it becomes clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. (6)

This is something of a reboot of Chrysippus’ dog, which must and will move when the cart does, but has the option of doing so with, without, or



against his will. In cases where Black does intervene, and Jones acts solely in consequence of that intervention, most would agree that Jones is not morally responsible for that action. But, Frankfurt asks, what if Jones, “for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform” (7), and Black does not need to get involved? Jones, whether he is aware of it or not, could not have done otherwise than what he willingly did; do we therefore not hold him responsible for his act? No, we do, because Jones made his choices freely and for his own reasons, notwithstanding the potential for manipulation or coercion by outside forces (which has turned out to be irrelevant in this case; Jones would have acted as he did even if they were nonexistent, and if there had been genuine alternatives). Therefore, Frankfurt concludes, determinism is not incompatible with moral responsibility, and may very well coincide with it. Even if Black vigilantly watches Jones for his whole life, and even if it never becomes necessary for him to subvert Jones’ desires, it will still be true that (a) Jones never actually has alternate possibilities, and (b) he is nonetheless responsible for all he has done. What matters is the disposition, reasons, intention, desires, assent – in short, the will – of the acting subject, even if that subject operates under the imperious purview of external forces.54 In a subsequent essay that has been nearly as influential, Frankfurt turned his attention to that subject itself and the distinctive nature of personhood, which he argued was to be found in the structure of the will.55 He notes that the common notion of free will as the ability to do what one wants, while it does “capture at least part of what is implicit in the idea of an agent who acts freely,” entirely omits “the peculiar content of the quite different idea of an agent whose will is free” (20).56 Many animals are able to act on their desires, but surely that is a low bar to set for something as crucial as free will; what sets persons uniquely apart? Frankfurt acknowledges that humans “are not alone in having desires and motives, or in making choices,” but humans are distinctively “capable of wanting to be different, in their preferences and purposes, from what they are” (12). To elucidate this, Frankfurt offers a distinction between “first-order desires” (which are simply desires to do or not do something) and “secondorder desires” (which are metadesires about first-order desires). Furthermore, there are two kinds of second-order desires: “someone has a desire of the second order when he wants simply to have a certain desire or when he wants a certain desire to be his will” (16). The latter Frankfurt calls “second-order volition,” and it is this that he considers the defining trait of persons. To illustrate, imagine a cigarette smoker, Smith,57 who deeply enjoys smoking but knows it is also bad for his health; we might say that

Literature, Philosophy, Theology: [Early] Modern


he has conflicting first-order desires, to smoke or to stop smoking, to experience this pleasure or to forego it in hopes of improving his chances at a long and healthy life. The fact that he is still smoking suggests that one desire has simply prevailed over the other in ways that do not require secondorder reflection (a hungry animal sniffing a rotten carcass will make a similar decision between its desires for food and health). But to the degree that Smith reflects on his desires themselves, and wishes that a particular one of them would win out, he has developed a second-order desire; perhaps he “wants to want” to quit smoking in an abstract way that does not really jeopardize his relationship to tobacco. And if he develops a strong preference for one desire over the other, and really wants it to be efficacious – that is, to be his deliberate will – then Smith will have generated a second-order volition and met Frankfurt’s criterion for personhood. Smith may or may not succeed in quitting smoking (perhaps he will turn out to be hopelessly addicted and thus not really free to quit), but he will have deliberately assessed and hierarchized his desires in an act of self-determining and action-issuing will, and thus distinguished himself from unreflective “wantons” like babies and animals. “It is only because a person has volitions of the second order,” Frankfurt avers (19), “that he is capable both of enjoying and of lacking freedom of the will.” A person with free will may not be able to do everything he might like, but he is free to want what he wants to want . . . or to have the will he wants . . .. It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions, then, that a person exercises freedom of the will. And it is in the discrepancy between his will and his second-order volitions, or in his awareness that their coincidence is not his own doing but only a happy chance, that a person who does not have this freedom feels its lack. (20)

This is a perceptive and humane (and salutary) twentieth-century articulation of a twenty-plus-century-old problem. Frankfurt suggests that agency is not simply the ability to act out our desires; it also involves the capacity and the inclination to scrutinize, evaluate, reorder, and shape those desires themselves. A person who can carry out in action the will that she wants to have has “all the freedom it is possible to desire or conceive” (22–3). But a person who is unable to execute or indeed to have the will he wants may be considered “estranged from himself, or that he finds himself a helpless or a passive bystander to the forces that move him” (22). Sometimes, then, we are indeed able to effectively realize our carefully hierarchized desires – but often we are unable to do what we would like to



do, and sometimes, in especially self-reflective moments, we find ourselves struggling or unable to even have the desires that we somehow wish we could (or think we should) have. Perhaps, as I think Frankfurt implies, such moments are when we are most authentically and agonizingly human, confronted with a gap between our aspiration and our limitation that mirrors a more localized internal gap between what Philip Sidney called our “erected wit” and our “infected will.”58 Sidney, though he suggested in his Apology for Poetry that this breach could be locally remediated by literature, believed as a committed Protestant that it could ultimately be bridged only by divine grace, and this reminds us once again that we are dealing here with a theological problem as well as a philosophical one. Paul clearly recognizes some form of it when he writes in Romans 7 that “to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Why am I not able to do what I want to do, to effectively will to do what I know is right? Paul offers a profoundly influential anthropological and theological diagnosis of humanity’s predicament: though we think of ourselves as coherent, self-directing agents, we in fact do not really understand even our own actions, or the will that supposedly drives them. This radical self-alienation he attributes to sinfulness, and it is more or less congruent to humanity’s alienation from God; because of its crippling effects, we are powerless to repair it, nor can we act in full freedom without such a renovation. Our only hope, says Paul, and our only chance of true freedom, is unearned grace, the effectual expression of the infinite goodness of God. “I do not know / Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’” moans Hamlet, “Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (–6).59 Centuries later, Freud would propose a nonreligious model for understanding the dynamics of the fractured self and its actions, and that model has been eagerly applied to Hamlet ever since. But Hamlet and Shakespeare did not live in Freud’s world. They lived in that of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and their opponents – a world, that is, just as deeply attuned to the question of the damaged and desiring self, and what it could or could not do, but which pursued these questions in explicitly religious terms. Are we Hamlet’s “piece of work” or “quintessence of dust,” or, somehow, both? Are our acts expressions of free potentiality, or of divinely ordained necessity? To what degree is the former restricted or denatured by our mortal sinfulness? And what purchase, granted or fought for, does it have on the latter? If humans are, as Hamlet marvels, “in action . . . like an angel,” the question remains whether the salient point

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of the comparison is power, or obedience, or the potential for rebellion. (Milton will develop this most explicitly, but the issue is central to each of the authors and texts treated in this book.) This basic perplexity, then, is about as old as systematic Western thought itself, and for eighteen or more centuries it was most deeply and powerfully explored in Christian theology and its outworkings. That theology, and its contentious literary offspring, are the subject of this book.60 Insofar as it contextualizes the literary texts that are its primary object, Theology and Agency will focus on the theological elaboration of the agency problem in the early modern era, and particularly on soteriology: what control, these texts ask, do I have over my eternal fate? How, why, and by whom does my soul get saved or damned? What is the relation of my will to God’s, my actions to my destiny? How do these ultimate concerns relate to material actions in the temporal world? I do not claim that this is the only discourse of agency that mattered – there were of course political, social, and philosophical ones as well – but there are good reasons to regard soteriology as fundamental, or at the very least a highly apt synecdoche for the problem at large. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was nearly universal consensus that at least in theory, the state of one’s eternal soul was infinitely more important than one’s temporal wellbeing; soteriology thus focuses on what was generally agreed to be the most consequential form of the agency question. Furthermore, while there may not be a strict congruence between soteriological and general determinism, it seems reasonable to expect that one’s views of human capacity in the temporal and eternal realms would have some relation to one another and not be utterly contradictory, so one might be a bit surprised to find a philosophical libertarian who was also a soteriological determinist.61 Charles Taylor argues persuasively that purely idealist or materialist accounts of history are necessarily insufficient, and that “all adequate historical explanation” involves an interplay between thoughts and bodies, abstract ideas and concrete actions, doctrines and practices, idées-forces and brute facts.62 This claim illuminates two important principles of the present study. First, the agency problem is itself a marvelous instantiation of this conjunctive imperative, as it necessarily conjoins idea and action, understanding one in terms of the other, and meditating deeply on the nature of their relationship. Without this complex and contentious coupling, there is no agency problem to even think about. Second, as Sidney contended, literature is uniquely suited to this kind of meaningful bringing-together: poesy is centrally in the business of giving bodies and actions to ideas. Because it fuses the abstractions of philosophy and theology with



the characters and actions of history, imaginative literature is the ideal medium for expressing and interrogating abstract principles in materially interesting ways – perhaps never more so than when it presses on the vexed question of human agency itself, by exploring imagined agencies as a way of thinking through our own. Accordingly, in the literary texts as in the world, these abstract issues find embodiment in temporal, material, and sometimes quite mundane actions: whether and why to [not] conquer the world, or sell one’s soul to the devil, or take vengeance on one’s enemies, or see the hand of God in one’s suffering, or turn one’s horse around, or listen to one’s spouse, or quit one’s job and convince a nice lady to eat an apple. The present introduction has set a largely secular and very widely spaced pair of historical bookends around this question, spanning about twentyfour centuries (even more if we count the brief discussions of Homeric and Old Testament texts) to outline the perdurable nature of these problems throughout the history of Western thought. Chapter 1, already described, narrows that focus somewhat to chart a central version of the question through the first seventeen centuries of Christianity; here, too, I suggest that the basic terms of the issue do not change much over time. The remaining four chapters zero in on British literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; each takes on an aspect of the agency problem, and uses it to probe deeply into familiar and indeed centrally canonical texts in hopes that doing so may illuminate them in new or forgotten ways. In Chapter 2, I use Marlowe to explore the function of will, and argue that widespread critical assumptions about the Calvinist nature of Doctor Faustus can be disproven and corrected by attending to the centrality of willed soteriological choice in the play. Chapter 3 looks beyond the strictly theological to engage the nature of action as condensed into the signature mode of revenge tragedy; while the protagonists of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore all see themselves as exercising a kind of radical ethical autonomy in revenge, the plays suggest in different ways that even this decidedly nonsoteriological action can only be conceived, understood, and enacted in relation to the transcendent authority of the divine. Donne’s profoundly conflicted devotional poetry is the object of Chapter 4, which focuses on the dynamics of resistance and self-assertion with regard to Protestant monergism; this struggle, I suggest, exists even in his beloved “Goodfriday” poem, buried in the syntax of the poem’s most apparently submissive moment. And finally, Chapter 5 examines the tripartite discourse of blame in Milton’s Paradise Lost, finding in it a highly nuanced register of the poem’s complex ethical dynamics of responsibility and disavowal.

Literature, Philosophy, Theology: [Early] Modern


In their more abstract forms, these theological and philosophical debates are framed by their boundaries, by the presence of hardline voices on both extremes, arguing either that we have no agency at all, or that we are the only agents and causes that really matter. Most of us, though, live in the in-between, recognizing that each side can claim some truth but not all of it. Likewise, all of the literary texts addressed in this book engage these compelling tensions as complex, urgent, difficult, and not-remainderless problems, and they all tend to work toward a logic of relation or coordination rather than exclusion. We are most likely not, as Milton’s Satan puts it, “self-begot, self-rais’d,” radically self-actuating agents who will and act entirely by wholly original promptings; but neither are we will-less automatons marching through a series of fully determined steps to our graves. The early modern literary writers addressed in this book demonstrate this in their nuanced meditations on agency. None of them fully embrace the robust kind of determinism that denies that humans possess any meaningful agency whatsoever. Even The Tempest’s Prospero, for instance, who exercises sweeping natural and supernatural as well as sociopolitical powers; who commands attendant spirits that do his bidding; whose power, in Caliban’s estimation, exceeds that of his witch-mother’s god Setebos; who is utterly certain of himself and frankly inclined to bullying – who, in short, might be argued to wield more comprehensive and God-like power over others than any other Shakespearean character – either cannot or does not control the internal, affective states of others. He does not “make” Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, nor does he “make” his Milanese and Neapolitan betrayers repent and submit (indeed, some give no evidence that they have); rather, he creates conditions that render these desired outcomes possible, and waits to see if the other people decide to take that course. In the play’s romance logic of loss and wondrous recovery, coercion can make others do chores, and can point them in a particular direction, but it does not make them repent and seek for grace – and if they don’t, they may be arbitrarily forgiven anyway. But if none of the literary writers in this book are wholehearted determinists, none are wholehearted secular libertarians either, though a number of them flirt with it. Marlowe explores the bleeding-edge possibilities of radical human freedom of will, but frames these explorations, and the will itself, within definitively theological bounds. Similarly, the revenge dramatists treat the question of action in one of its starkest and most intimate forms, but all three in the end (albeit in very different ways) appear able to conceive of even prohibited, antinomian action only in relation to the divine. Donne ferociously resists the self-abnegation implied



by grace, and fights to make his own will and action central to his salvation, but does so dialectically with a God he loves dearly and eventually finds peace in submitting to. And while Milton insists on the ethical centrality of human choice both before and after the Fall, this agency is for him never absolute or unbounded or self-grounded (that is an explicitly Satanic error); it exists always in the context of relation to a definitively good and just God. Why do these varied, probing, passionate explorations of agency come to such similar conclusions? A skeptic might answer that these authors were all simply prisoners of their age, unable to think their way entirely past the fundamental assumptions of its benighted orthodoxies. But this would be a reductive and frankly rather unthoughtful response to these extraordinary texts and their authors. Clearly these writers were able to think outside the box of total submission to a theological orthodoxy of divine domination; indeed, each questions or critiques it in compelling ways. Why, then, does each return to effect some sort of rapprochement with the divine first cause? Perhaps because of faith and conviction – everyone, after all, operates by first principles of some kind – but perhaps in at least some cases this understanding is a conclusion rather than a presupposition. Perhaps these writers and texts converge in a recognition that, as this introduction has argued, neither determinism nor libertarianism in their hard forms provide a satisfactory account of human experience, and any thoughtful understanding of human capacity requires reflection on our incapacities and the claims of other agents. It is easy enough to understand the desire for autonomy of will and action: we assume it to be a constitutive element of our humanity and subjectivity, and without it our existence seems mechanical and quite not worth it. What is also true but sometimes less apparent to us is the downside of radical freedom – but Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were far from alone in regarding unbounded liberty as a deeply problematic kind of nightmare. Plato’s fable of Gyges’ ring (Republic, II) makes the discouraging argument that unconstrained agency leads quite directly to evil, and Hobbes’ state of nature, in which anyone can do whatever they can and want, is even more alarming in that it renders the very concepts of good and evil meaningless. “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place,”63 he avers, and the horror of such a Darwinian state of amoral chaos is clear – as is the paradoxically liberating relief of external limitation, even when it comes in the form of a rather demanding sea monster. “Necessity is not only compatible with autonomy,” Frankfurt writes; “it is in certain respects essential to it. There must be limits to our

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freedom if we are to have sufficient personal reality to exercise genuine autonomy at all. What has no boundaries has no shape.”64 This is a compatibilist credo to which incompatibilists might object, but it is a salutary reminder to our somewhat-solipsistic age that our wills, our actions, our characters, our values, and our very notions of ourselves and everything else, are forged in the crucible of these dynamics.

chapter 1

A History of Christian Agency

The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the Lord.

Proverbs 16:1

. . . to be afeard of my deserving Were but a weak disabling of myself. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice 2.7

The preceding Introduction very roughly sketched out the long, long history of secular Western meditation on the problematics of agency. But for many centuries between the classical and modern eras, these questions were addressed most acutely and persistently in Christian theology, via an ongoing discussion that came to a crescendo in the sixteenth century. At their core, Reformation-era debates over agency revolved around an apparently straightforward set of soteriological questions: How and why do salvation and damnation happen? Who is responsible for it? How much of it is determined by God, and how much by human choice or action? What kind of control do we exercise over our own eternal destiny? These questions, though, are not straightforward at all once they are seriously pursued, and their implications have enormous consequences for a surprising range of core Christian doctrines. Soteriological agency is intertwined with atonement, baptism, theodicy, original sin, anthropology, justification, sanctification, the role of human works, and the nature of God, along with many lesser theological issues. Given the depth and consequence of this embeddedness, it is not surprising that the question of agency was so hotly debated. It is also not surprising (though it is not widely understood) that Luther identified this issue, not corruption or idolatry or ecclesiology or scripturalism or sacramental theology, as the central point of the Reformation and indeed of Christianity. But these defining conflicts do not originate in the sixteenth century, or the fifteenth, 32

Paul versus James: Faith and Works


or the fourteenth; to sketch out their history, we will have to go back through the medieval era, and the late-classical, all the way to the biblical era itself.

Paul versus James: Faith and Works The theological agency problem has its roots in the complexity of biblical discourse on the subject. At times, and quite pervasively, even outside of the Pauline writings, the Bible seems to declare quite clearly that all meaningful, saving agency is in the hands of God, and exercised upon individuals who are without exception sinful to the point of helplessness. This position is indicated in, for example, Job 14:4 (“Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one”); Jonah 2:9 (“Salvation is of the Lord”); Psalm 14:2–3 (“The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one”), 51 (“Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me”), and 118:14 (“The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation”); Ecclesiastes 7:20 (“For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not”); Mark 10:18 (“there is none good but one, that is, God”); I John 1:8 (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”).1 This tradition was interpreted and articulated with overwhelming force in the letters of Paul2 – see especially Romans 3 (where he cites a catena of Old Testament declarations) and 9, Galatians 2–4, Ephesians 2 – who argued against subordinating Christianity to the old covenant (via circumcision and other works-based adherence to the Levitical law) by reinterpreting the Law as absolutely unfulfillable outside of grace, and thus unavailable as a source of redemptive human merit; in Paul’s account, the Law functions instead as an absolute marker of humanity’s radical inability to be righteous before God.3 As he scolds the backsliding Galatians (3:3), “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”4 For Paul, divine grace – initially working upon, more than with, human will or action – is the foundation and essence of the new covenant: as he tells Timothy (II Tim. 1:9), God “hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” He similarly declares to the Ephesians (2:8–9) that “by grace are ye saved


A History of Christian Agency

through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Good works can and must accompany justifying grace, but they do not cause or precede it because, like faith itself, they are made possible (as sinners are made righteous) by it through divine gift.5 Furthermore, the will and grace of God are the necessary preconditions for successful human action of various sorts, from collaborative sanctification to worship to social relations to daily ethics, and Paul accordingly instructs Christians extensively not just in theology but also in the proper consequences of grace for everyday conduct. On the other hand, there is an equally prevalent strand of biblical discourse that seems to teach precisely the attainability of human righteousness, and the reward of salvation that God gives in response to it. Examples of this include Deuteronomy 18:13 (“Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God”); Leviticus 19:2 (“Ye shall be holy: for I, the Lord your God, am holy”); Psalm 15, 18:20–1 (“The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God”), 26:1 (“Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the Lord, therefore I shall not slide”), and 119:1–3 (“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord . . . They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways”). Christ commands perfection in Matthew 5:48 (“‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’”), and Peter (I Peter 1: 13–16) and even Paul (2 Corinthians 13:11) exhort believers to aspire to it – though Paul is always careful to treat it as an aspiration and a gift of grace, not something to be attained under one’s own steam. As he tells the Corinthians, “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord,” for “what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (I Cor. 1:31, 4:7). It is James, however, who appears to articulate the strongest doctrine of works in the New Testament. Here is James 2:14–26: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

Paul versus James: Faith and Works


Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

This is an awkward fit with Pauline teaching, and a great deal of exegetical energy has been expended on harmonizing the two. The usual argument is that James is simply saying that true, saving faith must and will inevitably produce effects (in the manner of Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” [Galatians 5]) in the redeemed sinner’s actions – or to put it in later theological terms, that sanctification is a necessary corollary of justification (though their order of precedence is unspecified). One who professes faith, but shows no concrete movement toward lived godliness or conformity to the image of Christ, casts doubt on the substance and validity of that faith, displaying instead something that might be an empty profession or merely intellectual assent or even outright hypocrisy. This reading is consistent with Pauline teaching, treats works as necessary signs and consequences of faith, and explains the most famous formula of this passage (“faith without works is dead”) quite persuasively. But this is not quite the end of the question, for as the passage reaches its theological climax in verse 24 – “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” – James advances a claim that fits much less comfortably with Paul. (Luther, famously, and for a variety of reasons, called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” and according to Bainton he “remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul.”6) The original Greek word usually translated as “justified” (the usual alternative is some variant of “declared righteous”) is δικαιοῦται, which means to be made, declared, or shown to be righteous; it is a derivation of δίκαιος, which means correct, righteous, or innocent. The specific form δικαιοῦται occurs just three other times in the New Testament, and those usages indicate both what the word means, and how James’ theology consequently differs from Paul’s. • Acts 13:39 – And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. • Galatians 2:16 – Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ,


A History of Christian Agency

that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh will be justified. • Galatians 3:11 – But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident: for, “The just shall live by faith.” All three of these instances explicitly align the term with faith to the categorical exclusion of the works of law, but James insists that justification requires both. The other crucial Greek word in verse 24 is ἔργων, which means action, deed, work, or works, and again we can clarify James’ deployment of the concept with parallel usages of the same word in Paul. • Romans 3:27–8 – Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. • Romans 11:6 – And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no longer grace: otherwise work is no more work. Once again, Paul deliberately distinguishes human works from grace and faith, for the purpose of unequivocally repudiating the salvific value of autonomous human action. So if James is indeed using both “justified” and “works” in senses demonstrably similar to those used by Paul and the author of Acts, it is difficult to be entirely sanguine about the reconcilability of Paul and James in this respect, because verse 24 appears to affirm exactly what Paul so ferociously denies: that we are saved not purely by grace or faith, but partially, and essentially, through our actions.7 Verse 22 contends that works make faith, which is by implication incomplete and insufficient on its own, “perfect.” And verse 26 sets up a striking parallel: body is to spirit as faith is to works – that is, works are what animate and give [eternal] life to what would otherwise be an inert corpse of mere faith. Paul famously argued in his second letter to the Corinthians (3:6) that “the letter (usually glossed as the law, and often more broadly as the implied emphasis on works as a means of true righteousness) killeth, but the spirit giveth life”; James suggests in contrast that works are the life-giving essence of faith. In other words, we have according to James not only the capacity but the obligation to contribute to our own justification through action. This reading of James, and the ways in which it may be at odds with Paul, may come as a surprise to those more familiar with the content, and the subsequent historical dominance, of Paul’s teaching on these matters. What are we to do with this New Testament (and more broadly biblical)

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


tension? One response is to reconcile the two apostles in one way or another, on the principle that the inspired Word cannot contradict itself. Another, though, might be to recognize a genuine theological disagreement here, a possibility of difference within the radical flux of neonatal Christianity; after all, the New Testament itself narrates for us some vigorous disagreements among the early apostles, and it took the early Church centuries to work out some of its core doctrines. And, more surprisingly still given the course that things would take, Jaroslav Pelikan tells us that the young faith generally positioned itself as an empowering alternative to pagan forms of determinism like astrology and Stoic fatalism: Christian anthropology, as formulated in the course of the ante-Nicene and immediately post-Nicene debates, leaned noticeably to one side of the dilemma, namely, the side of free will and responsibility rather than the side of inevitability and original sin . . .. In the conflict of Christian theology with classicism it was chiefly this sense of fate and necessity that impressed itself upon the interpreters of the gospel as the alternative to their message, rather than, for example, the Socratic teaching that with proper knowledge and adequate motivation a man could, by the exercise of his free will, overcome the tendency of his appetites toward sin. With very few exceptions the apologists for the gospel against Greek and Roman thought made responsibility rather than inevitability the burden of their message.8

If Pelikan is correct, then, the primitive, pre-Augustinian church tended more toward James than toward Paul, or, more fairly (since James and Paul held more complex and shared beliefs than this schematic suggests), toward an emphasis on human agency over against irresistible external determinants of the individual’s destiny.9 But whatever the precise nature of this complex balance may have been, the tension at its heart turned out to be an enduring feature of Christian doctrine for the next twenty centuries.

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace These tensions became explicit and critical in the seminal fifth-century conflict between Augustine – who had himself very influentially argued for free will in his earlier clashes with the Manicheans10 – and Pelagius, a British moralist-cum-heresiarch living in Rome who went well beyond the implications of James. By the time this conflict was over, the Pelagian sense of free agency would be anathematized, the soteriological value of independent human works repudiated, and divine sovereignty asserted so powerfully that the principle would dominate Christian theology until the Enlightenment.


A History of Christian Agency

According to Augustine’s own report, Pelagius’ revolt began when he heard a bishop reading from Augustine’s Confessions: “Grant what you command, and command what you will.”11 Pelagius, the story goes, was appalled at the passivity of this formulation and the moral and ethical laxity it seemed to encourage; undoubtedly God may command what he wills, but if the fulfillment of those commands is itself a gift from him, then what space exists for the faithful, ethical, responsible human agent? In response to this worrisome suggestion, Pelagius embarked on a campaign of holiness, living an ascetic life and exhorting other Christians to take the imperative of righteous living seriously. No divergence from biblical teaching is necessarily implied in encouraging people to take responsibility for their actions, and to pursue godliness in the choices of their everyday lives; Paul did no less. But two things happened over time that amplified the heterodoxy of Pelagius’ teaching. One is that he acquired followers (particularly Caelestius, Rufinus, and later Julian of Eclanum) who were more radical, more excitable, and more inclined to push and elaborate his theological program than he himself was; it is often said, with significant truth, that Pelagius was likely not a Pelagian in the full sense of the heresy, and in any case his primary concerns were always moral and pastoral rather than purely theological. The other is that he was apparently pressed to make explicit the biblical and theological arguments that underlay his pietistic agenda, and particularly to clarify the implied relationship between human action and divine grace. And when one of the resulting books (De natura, now lost) fell into Augustine’s hands, the bishop of Hippo decided that what he had previously regarded as a minor error was in fact a mortal threat to Christianity. Why was Pelagianism considered so dangerous? The title of Augustine’s response, De natura et gratia, gives some preliminary indication of what was at stake. The superimposition of “et gratia” onto Pelagius’ title appears at first to be a clever emendation, a conjunctive addition of a second principle which will properly complement or counterbalance the first and put the two into right relationship. But gratia, it turns out, is not simply a supplement to natura; gratia is in the end virtually the whole story. And the account of natura is so radically different from that of Pelagius that that, too, is no longer what it seemed: Augustinian natura is not sufficient to itself, or even the copartner of gratia, but a hostage of sin. All that we know about the argument of De natura comes from Augustine’s account of the book in his own refutation of it. Bearing that and the bishop’s polemical and rhetorical aims in mind, but

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


remembering also that Augustine was generally a quite fair representer of his opponents, we can infer some of Pelagius’ central points. • Righteousness, the plenary fulfilling in deed of God’s moral law, is within the capacity of human beings (“I say that a person is able to be without sin”); this does not mean that it has been done [much], but that it can be done.12 • “[I]n little ones human nature has no need of a physician, because it is healthy, and . . . in adults it is able to be self-sufficient for righteousness, if it wants.”13 • This capacity, whether or not it is ever realized, is a prerequisite for just punishment: if a creature cannot be other than sinful, it cannot justly be held accountable for its sins.14 • Sin, being an act and not a substance, could not have weakened or altered human nature.15 • Humans need God’s forgiveness for past sins, but can avoid present and future ones on their own.16 • The Bible carefully records the sins of Adam, Eve, and Cain, but not Abel; therefore Abel must have been sinless, therefore born with the capacity to not sin, therefore he did not inherit unavoidable sin from his parents.17 • The capacity of not sinning is a “necessity of nature,” created in humans by a gracious God who both wills them not to sin, and endows them with the ability to succeed, because “the good and just God could not command what is impossible.”18 This amounts to a rather comprehensive assertion of human nature as being fully capable of sinlessness, and thus of righteousness which warrants neither condemnation nor punishment. From it devolves an ethic of both achievement and accountability: human actions are legitimately deeds of autonomous choice and consequent merit or guilt, and eternal reward or punishment hinges critically and justly upon them. One might expect Augustine to attack this view of human nature directly at its root, but he does not; instead, he begins by praising Pelagius and apparently agreeing with him. He commends the book’s author as “a man aflame with ardent zeal against those people who ought to lay the blame for their sins upon the human will, but try to excuse themselves by laying the blame on human nature instead.”19 In this first sentence we can see a very complex act of positioning, which signals a great deal of the argument to come. Its central act of censure is an act of common cause with Pelagius, namely a critique of those who blame human nature itself for sin and


A History of Christian Agency

conclude that sin, since unpreventable, must be excused. With this sort of spiritual passivity and resignation to sin Augustine will have no truck, and so a strange temporary alliance with his opponent is formed. But in the very act of declaring that, he indicates where blame and accountability properly lie: with human will, and understanding this is crucial to understanding what is at issue between Augustine and Pelagius. While they appear to agree on quite a lot – the goodness of human nature,20 the possibility of human perfectibility and righteousness, accountability for one’s sin, the importance of striving for righteousness, and so forth – they had conflicting understandings of how these claims worked because of their divergent understandings of sin and its consequences for the will, and this would in the end constitute the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. Pelagius elsewhere very usefully broke down his view of human righteousness or perfectibility into three conditions or faculties or phases, each condensed into a Latin infinitive. First is posse, “to be able,” and this possibility of sinless living is for Pelagius entirely an act of divine grace, a creation in all humans of the capacity for true righteousness, and a manifestation of God’s desire for that. Second is velle, which means to desire or will, and this is entirely a matter of human free will; though we would not have choice if God hadn’t graciously endowed us with it, he has, and thus in every moment of moral choice we have both the capacity and the responsibility to choose rightly. And third is esse, “to be,” which flows with almost syllogistic force from the first two: if one has both the ability and the desire to be sinless, then one will, perhaps with God’s rewarding and cooperating help, act in such a way as to be sinless and attain true righteousness.21 Together, these faculties bring together a general sort of divine grace, a significant dimension of human choice and accountability, and an optimistic belief in the possibility of lived holiness. It is attractive in its affirmation of free will, and also in its conviction that humans are responsible for their own free choices; this in turn endorses the justness of God’s judgment, in which paradise or perdition are individually earned destinies. So why does Augustine object to it so strenuously? Most of their difference, I think, can be found in the second phase of will. Augustine believes in human perfectibility, the created capacity for sinlessness, and sanctification as a collaborative partnership of human and divine agency; in other words, there is a good deal of overlap between him and Pelagius on the first and third phases (though as we will see, it turns out that they believe these propositions in different senses). In between, though, are radical differences in their understanding of the will. One problem is that both individual experience and biblical testimony indicate

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


clearly that the relation of will and action is not straightforward; we daily fail to do things that we “want” to do (short-lived New Year’s resolutions, quitting smoking, exercising, being nicer, etc.). Pelagius had grounded the capacity for sinlessness in our graciously created nature, claiming that “the ability not to sin lies not so much in the power of choice as in the necessity of nature.” Augustine denies that “human nature itself has the inseparable ability not to sin,” because “if they have an inseparable ability, they cannot have a weakness of will, or rather the presence of the will along with the lack of its accomplishment.”22 But this manifestly does happen to humans, and in recognizing this disjunction Augustine has the support of both daily experience and the word of Paul, who famously writes in Romans 7: that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

How is it that Paul – a converted, saved, and rather notable Christian – experiences the internal self-estrangement of being unable to align his actions with his aspirations? For both Paul and Augustine, there is a radical problem in the will itself. In his Confessions, Augustine gives a highly sophisticated and startlingly modern analysis of his flawed subjectivity: The one necessary condition, which meant not only going but at once arriving there, was to have the will to go – provided only that the will was strong and unqualified, not the turning and twisting first this way, then that, of a will half-wounded, struggling with one part rising up and the other part falling down . . . Yet I was not doing what with an incomparably greater longing I yearned to do, and could have done the moment I so resolved. For as soon as I had the will, I would have had a wholehearted will. At this point the power to act is identical with the will. The willing itself was performative of the action. Nevertheless, it did not happen . . . What is the cause of this monstrous situation? . . . the will that commands is incomplete, and therefore what it commands does not happen. If it were complete, it would not need to command the will to exist, since it would exist already. Therefore there is no monstrous split between willing and not willing. We are dealing with a morbid condition of the mind which, when it is lifted up by the truth, does not unreservedly rise to it but is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills. Neither of them is complete, and what is present in the one is lacking in the other.23


A History of Christian Agency

In Augustine’s remarkable account,24 the fractured and self-defeating will is tainted with sin, both before and after the advent of saving faith, often unable to do what it knows should be done, and haunted by what Debora Shuger calls a “domain of psychological experience that falls between the voluntary and the involuntary: the images, memories, sensations, and longings that stream unwilled into consciousness and at least partially escape rational control.”25 Such phenomena force the question: if even for saved Christians like Paul or Augustine, the will, while capable of recognizing and desiring righteousness, is unable to consistently effect it on its own,26 what chance does anyone have of either desiring holiness or being righteous? The Pauline and Augustinian answer, of course, is the transcendent external agency of God, which alone can repair and redirect the will toward the good and bring it to fruition. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul counsels the Philippians (2:12), not because you can save yourself (according to him you can’t), but precisely because “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Sin pervades all, corrupting our will and poisoning our works, rendering us both deserving of condemnation and utterly unable (and often uninclined) to do anything about it. As a result, we have nothing righteous to offer God by way of trade, no true merit with which to earn favor and mercy; his mysterious, inscrutable, undeserved grace is our only hope of recovering the liberty and dignity of rectified will and action. Charles Taylor argues that for Augustine, the inner self is both where we find God and where sin misdirects us into solipsistic self-love; the Pauline predicament is “the central crisis of moral experience,” properly resolved only by the recognition of “our dependence on God in the very intimacy of our own presence to ourselves, at the roots of those powers which are most our own.”27 This debate over human will, which depends crucially on fundamental conceptions of human nature, capacity, and freedom, was deeply and bidirectionally linked to the problem of original sin and the present legacy of the Fall. Pelagius (and if not him, certainly other Pelagians) contended that even postlapsarian humans are by nature rational, responsible, only moderately compromised free agents who possess as their inheritance from God the power to correctly make their own ethical decisions and thus the ability to be perfect. Such a capacity required a rejection of the doctrine of original sin – also Pauline and Augustinian – and a countervailing notion of a clean slate at birth (and in turn a much more casual view of baptism than Augustine’s). This is why the putative sinlessness of Abel is important to Pelagius, as a demonstration that mortal sin was not passed on

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


automatically to the descendants of Adam and Eve; if that principle prevails, then it does follow that humans are born with neither a record nor an irresistible tendency to sin, and righteousness is indeed possible in the Pelagian sense. But as Augustine and Paul both argued, if this is the case and humans are able to independently fulfill divine law and save themselves, then not only is special grace unnecessary, but Christ suffered and died for no very good reason.28 Augustine’s own view of original sin – as usual, derived from Paul, and destined to become Christian orthodoxy – was that all humans do have a toxic legacy from Adam and Eve, one that poisons our will, condemns our souls, and renders us not only helpless but radically unfree (or to be more precise, with a diseased free will that can only choose and do wrong, and that is nonetheless responsible for the wrong that it chooses and does; as Augustine always insists, we do not sin without our will). To him, the Pelagian free agent was not just an illusion but a very dangerous one that mistook bondage for liberty and vice versa. Augustine believed, like Pelagius, that humans were indeed created good, free, and capable of just and righteous lives before God – but also, unlike him, that these qualities were profoundly lost, warped, and imprisoned with the Fall. We can only be holy if we first desire holiness, but having been originally created sinless and perfect (though with the option of choosing otherwise) is not enough for our now-corrupted nature to desire holiness. Only the special intervention of God’s prevenient grace can point our desires in the right direction, and give us the opportunity for faith and salvation. Only grace can restore us to the freedom and goodness with which human nature was originally created. Paradoxically, then, “This is the law of freedom, not of servitude, because it is the law of love, not of fear.”29 What Pelagius had argued was the ethical necessity of freedom for humans to choose and do for themselves is, for Augustine, the greatest and deadliest bondage of all, because it leads humans to misrecognize their sin as agency, to entrust their salvation and righteousness to themselves, and to not seek true liberty and redemption in the only place they might be found. Conversely, and no less paradoxically, it is only through the overwhelming and inexplicable action of the divine that we can recover our lost freedom, will, and agency. Augustine thus regards divine and human will as ideally operating in alliance with one another, and Pelagius himself professed to believe something similar.30 But Pelagius’ followers inclined to see the two as mutually exclusive and in opposition to one another: Bonner observes that “Julian of Eclanum did not hesitate to speak of man as ‘emancipated from God [Libertas arbitrii, qua a Deo emancipatus homo est]’ by the possession of free


A History of Christian Agency

will, while Caelestius asserted that the will could not be free if it needed the help of God, since each of us has it in his own power either to act or to refrain from acting.”31 For the more extreme Pelagians, freedom was the primary value, and they were willing to pay the price of separation from God, and the forfeiture of special grace, for it. For Augustine, grace is both completely necessary and absolutely gratuitous, and we have no meaningful supplement with which to earn or initiate it; those who teach otherwise, no matter how good their intentions might be, misunderstand the relationship between God and humanity, undermine divine love, and lead the weak astray. So, then, gratia, not natura, is more or less the whole story, and grace works not so much against nature (though it finds plenty of resistance there) as it works to liberate it into something akin to its originally created state, wherein its ability to truly choose the good is restored as the human will is realigned with the divine. As Augustine had emphatically written in De spiritu et littera (30, 52), “Are we then doing away with free choice through grace? Heaven forbid! Rather, we make free choice stronger. After all, as the law is not done away with through faith, so free choice is not done away with, but strengthened by grace.” Yes, says Augustine with Paul, “I can do all things,” I can perform truly righteous and meritorious works – but only “through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). The Augustinian subject is therefore no puppet: her choices and actions derive from her will (thus making Augustine at least technically a compatibilist), and her will derives from the ultimate object of her love.32 But the free orientation of that love toward God (as opposed to evil or inferior goods) is entirely a matter of divine grace. Only if and because “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” are you able to “work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:13, 12). In this way, Augustine upholds the goodness and love and necessity of God, but the intensity of his commitment to this as the central truth of Christianity – Rees observes that Augustine “never failed to push his views to their logical conclusion”33 – led him to some rigorous conclusions. His conviction of the totality of grace meant increasingly over time that grace could not possibly be subject to chance, accident, contingency, or unknownness of any sort from God’s perspective, and this led to what some have seen as his affirmation of not only predestination (that God foreordains, from the dawn of time, precisely which individuals he will, inscrutably, determine to save) but also reprobation (that the same absolute decree determines, positively and irrevocably, the population of the damned).34 Furthermore, if redemption demanded the unthinkable price of God’s own son, there must be no other way to be saved, for any other

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


way would surely be easier and less painful. So if saving grace is everything, there can be no valid alternative to it; if it is necessary for salvation, anyone who has not been availed of it must suffer eternally, even if that lack is not directly their fault; and if it is a pure expression of God’s will, then he must directly determine who will receive it and, directly or indirectly, who will burn in hell. (In some ways, the last of these conclusions is the most terrifying of all, because if you are not marked out for grace, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. No amount of prayer, or fasting, or Bible study, or good deeds, or anything can save the unelected – though it may reveal him to be one of the elect after all.) These positions demonstrate that Augustinian grace comes at a steep price, when its implications are followed out. It requires a renunciation of fundamental beliefs in essential human goodness and autonomy, and some of its corollaries are so harsh as to present real challenges to those who seek to retain confidence in the goodness and justice of God. But in the course of his theological war with the Pelagians, the Church determined that the latter teaching carried with it even higher costs, logical implications dangerously incompatible with the core teachings of Christianity. Pelagianism minimized the significance of the Fall, and more or less denied the doctrine of original sin, and these are the central Christian mechanisms for explaining sin and evil and the individual’s need for grace. It emphasized general, creating grace at the expense of special, saving grace, and arguably made the latter unnecessary. Since it outlined a path to righteousness and justification that did not require the Cross, it had a theology of atonement so attenuated that Augustine concluded that if it were true, then Christ had died unnecessarily. And it downplayed the role of the Holy Spirit as the primary post-Ascension mode of grace’s intervention into human hearts. So while some of the implications of Augustinianism were troubling, those of Pelagianism had the potential to fatally undermine the central doctrines of Christianity. It is for this reason, most likely, that when Pelagius was examined and acquitted by the Synods of Jerusalem and Diospolis in 415, Augustine refused to accept the verdict, and pressed the case against the Pelagians until they were excommunicated and banished from the Empire, at which point Pelagius himself evaporates tragically from history, and the dominance of Augustine’s doctrines of agency and grace becomes definitively clear. Nonetheless, the full Augustinian view proved, in its totalizing emphasis on divine agency at the expense of the human, a difficult pill to swallow – and the ghost of Pelagius, and of the impulse to autonomous agency and virtue that he embodied, equally hard to settle. The final phase of the controversy pitted the aging bishop not against a bunch of wild-eyed,


A History of Christian Agency

Dionysian atheists, but a collection of earnest and pious (and in this similar to Pelagius himself) monks in northern Africa and southern Gaul. Fundamentally at issue was the logic of the entire monastic enterprise, which presupposed a complex of human freedom, moral responsibility, and divine justice, in which one’s choices and actions constituted achieved or failed holiness, and thus the reward or punishment one would receive in the afterlife. Why would one become a monk, if not out of a wish to order one’s life in such a way as to more deliberately pursue godliness (and in turn increase one’s chances of eternal bliss)? And how can that be squared with the Augustinian principle that salvation is in no way a response to human action or merit, but rather a unilateral decision made by God on bases that we can never know in this life? Pelagius had rebelled against Augustine’s teaching because of what he saw as its eviscerating fatalism, and did so to the point of eviscerating grace itself; the monks at Hadrumetum and Marseilles had no desire to sell grace short, but they perceived a serious undermining of their chosen way of life and their strivings toward God. In De gratia et libero arbitrio, Augustine in response affirmed from the outset not only a notion of free will, but also, more surprisingly, of corresponding reward: the divine commandments would not have done human beings any good if they did not have free choice of the will by which they might keep them and come to the promised rewards . . .. Let no one, then, accuse God in his heart, but let each person blame himself when he sins. And when he does something as God wants, let him not take this away from his own will. For, when he does it willingly, he should call it a good act, and he should hope for the reward of a good act from him of whom it is said, He will repay each according to his works.35

This initially appears to be a startling concession, but Augustine proceeds to set this model of free will in the context of a grace so all-encompassing that it alone is finally responsible for any true righteousness. He cites Paul’s testimony in I Corinthians 15:10 – “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” – as decisive evidence that good works, and the will to do them, are consequences of justifying grace and impossible without it. Augustine concludes that These and other divine testimonies prove that the grace of God is not given in accord with our merits, since we see that it was given and we see that it is daily given, not only with no preceding good merits, but even with many

Augustine versus Pelagius: Saving Grace


preceding evil merits . . . But clearly, once grace has been given, our good merits also begin to exist, but through that grace. For, if grace is withdrawn, a human being falls, no longer standing upright, but cast headlong by free choice. Hence, even when a human being begins to have good merits, he ought not to attribute them to himself, but to God[.]36

The unregenerated will is free but can only drag us down like a weight away from God; it is grace alone that fully frees that will to love and choose the ultimate good. As a recent account of the controversy puts it, “the contribution of the will is not that of being a partner with grace but of being the focus of the operation of grace; it is free for the good only as it is dominated and directed by grace.”37 But while grace may necessarily lie behind the doing of good works, they are nonetheless also acts of liberated human will, and their benefits and rewards accrue to the human agent. The regenerated will, that is, can perform genuinely good acts of merit that will be rewarded, but that merit is only possible by virtue of the prior gift of grace; in this economy, merit is created, bestowed, and rewarded by God.38 As Paul had written, “what hast thou that thou didst not receive?”39 Following this logic, Augustine thus appears to have pulled off the extraordinary compatibilist feat of reconciling the free-will/reward model of monastic agency with total, sovereign grace. This controversy was recapitulated, with greater intensity and a sharper theological point, soon afterward in southern Gaul. Cassian and his Gallic allies resisted what they saw as Augustine’s totalizing fatalism, and argued that, while grace was undoubtedly necessary for salvation, God’s universal will for salvation (not selective predestination) required relatively free beings who could choose good or evil and be held responsible for that choice; saving faith might originate with external grace or with a self-initiated will to faith.40 Though ultimately aimed at a more focused and purified union with the divine, the ascesis that underlies much cenobitic theology and practice is in essence a disciplinary act of agency, a devoted effort to subjugate one’s sinful will and move the self toward perfection in God. Augustine addressed these views in his final two works. In De predestinatione sanctorum, he argued that because of the radically compromised nature of the postlapsarian human will, the desire for what is truly good could only originate in divine will and not in ourselves; in De dono perseverantiae, he maintained that the successful continuance of that faith is no less a gift of God. But while the saved believer has not fully originated those things, he nonetheless acts with his (liberated and transformed) will, no less than the unbeliever acts with his own unredeemed will, and therefore both kinds of willed acts justly earn reward or


A History of Christian Agency

punishment as expressions of genuine will. Augustine agrees with all of his Pelagian and semi-Pelagian opponents that humans are willing, choosing, acting agents; what he denies is that we can will, choose, or do anything truly good (i.e., God-oriented) without the initiation and sustenance of grace. (This, I think, makes him in the end a soteriologically monergistic compatibilist.) Over a century passed before the Church put these issues to rest, as Gallic semi-Pelagianism was officially condemned at the Council of Orange in 529; a century after his death, Augustine had prevailed yet again. Yet Pelagius once again proved to be something of a zombie heretic, continually reappearing no matter how many times theologically killed by a similarly revenant Augustine. In this case, the irony of Orange is that while its main outcome was clearly the rejection of much of semiPelagianism, its canons embodied some degree of compromise with the heresy’s core principles, and it was thus not a total victory for hard Augustinianism. Alongside its canons’ emphatically anti-Pelagian insistence on original sin (canons 1–2) and the absolute necessity of prevenient grace (canons 3–8, 18–20),41 the council affirmed a significant postbaptismal role for human choice, will, and agency. The thirteenth canon, for example, declares that “freedom of the will [arbitrium voluntatis] weakened in the first man” can be “repaired [reparari] . . . through the grace of baptism,” thus making it possible for humans to voluntarily choose and do good things that deserve compensation (canon 18: Debetur merces bonis operibus).42 In Weaver’s summary account, What had been lost was the Augustinian sense of the grace of God as unfailingly effecting the inscrutable divine will through its continuous operation on the human heart. What had been retained was the conviction of human dependence on divine graciousness. What had been gained was a reliable, comprehensible connection, at least following baptism, between human actions and the outcome of those actions.43

Whatever its precise nature (if it indeed has one), Orange’s synthesis of hard Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism – semi-demi-Pelagianism, perhaps? – has not been authoritatively superseded, and “has continued to serve as the most nearly definitive statement that the church offers on the question of grace and human agency.” It was undoubtedly in the main an Augustinian victory, but “in subsequent centuries variations of [semiPelagian] teaching have functioned as the operative theology of the church.”44 What initially appears to be a decisive victory turns out to be yet another truce – on which, two final points. First, it addresses a tension

Aquinas and Aftermath: Synthesis versus Polarization


of which Augustine was well aware, and which he had sought to reconcile by developing a not entirely dissimilar model of freed (and meritorious) human will and action that are enabled but not extinguished or occluded by divine grace. And second, like all prior and subsequent truces on this issue, it was not to last.

Aquinas and Aftermath: Synthesis versus Polarization So if Augustine died in 430 thinking that he was well on the way to stamping out the last residual embers of Pelagianism, he was quite mistaken. The Council of Orange, even as it quite resoundingly affirmed original sin and the centrality of grace, was noncommittal on predestination, and affirmed a true freedom of the baptized and regenerated individual to choose good or evil. The conflict, only temporarily contained by this attempt at synthesis, flared up again in the ninth century, when Gottschalk of Orbais reasserted a hyper-Augustinian position on agency and soteriology, and for this was convicted of heresy and degraded from the priesthood. How did the theology renounced at Orange become “the operative theology of the church,” and the decisive pronouncements of Augustine become problematic, in the middle ages? Augustine’s rigorous later theology was very difficult to refute, but for many it proved even more difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. He had sought to fully acknowledge sin and its effects, and to firmly locate its remedy in the only hands in which it would be safe: those of a loving and omnipotent, if finally inscrutable, God. This, for him, was humanity’s great and only hope, but for others this scenario seemed quite hopeless: we are doomed from birth, fatally corrupt in will and action, held accountable for sins we cannot help committing, and unable to do anything about any of it without prior, unmerited, arbitrary, and decidedly nonuniversal intervention from God. The anthropology implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this seems simply too dark, too pessimistic, too helpless, too problematic in terms of ethics and justice and action – a nightmare version of what it is to be human.45 This may be why Pelagius keeps coming back. If Augustine gives us a picture of humanity as we fear we are, Pelagius offers a portrait (if arguably an overoptimistic and even naïve one) of what we hope we are: active, ethical agents, with high capacities of morality and choice, and substantially in control of our desires, actions, and destinies. Quite likely neither is entirely accurate, but the tension and oscillation between the two intra-Christian poles contained enough energy to drive centuries of theological and literary


A History of Christian Agency

exploration. For a millennium and more after Augustine, the theological project of Western Christianity centered on finding ways to both affirm and mitigate his teaching – both to avow sin and grace as radical truths, and to find some meaningful role within this war for human choice and action that could reconnect human agency and destiny, and exonerate God from some worrisome accusations when things turn out badly. For reasons I have already discussed, this has proven a tremendously tall order, but it is more or less what Thomas Aquinas attempted in the thirteenth century.46 The discourse on grace in his Summa Theologica presents an attractive synthesis of grace and action, divine and human, theology and philosophy, Augustine and Aristotle. Aquinas’ explanation of the latter two relationships earlier in the Summa provides an instructive paradigm of subordinated collaboration. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason.47

Philosophy and reason are valuable pursuits of truth in their own right, but they are also secondary, supplementary, and subordinated to faith, theology, and divine revelation, and the same subordinated relation of the earthly to the heavenly obtains between Aristotle and Augustine, and more broadly and absolutely between humans and God. In this way Aquinas, who cites Augustine more than any extrabiblical writer and clearly considers himself an Augustinian, structures a theory of agency that both reproduces his predecessor’s rigorous emphasis on grace, and carves out within it space for human virtue and choice. So in the case of predestination, for example, Aquinas declares that “it is fitting that God should predestine men”; that “predestination is not anything in the predestined; but only in the person who predestines”; that “God does reprobate some”; that the Pelagians are wrong in thinking that predestination is a divine response to human merit; that “neither . . . can there be said to be injustice in God, if He prepares unequal lots for not unequal things”; that “predestination most certainly and infallibly takes effect”; that “the number of the predestined is certain”; and that election presupposes love . . . Election and love, however, are differently ordered in God, and in ourselves: because in us the will in loving does not cause good, but we are incited to love by the good which already exists; and

Aquinas and Aftermath: Synthesis versus Polarization


therefore we choose someone to love, and so election in us precedes love. In God, however, it is the reverse. For His will, by which in loving He wishes good to someone, is the cause of that good possessed by some in preference to others.48

God’s love and election are here emphatically not responses to human goodness, but instillations of it which fill out both sides of the equation. But what might seem to be an affirmation of a total, inexorable divine ordination is importantly qualified with various affirmations of a human agency that is not destroyed or precluded by the absolute decrees of God. Predestination “does not impose any necessity, so that, namely, its effect should take place from necessity . . . the order of predestination is certain; yet free-will is not destroyed; whence the effect of predestination has its contingency,” and this is possible because “providence, of which predestination is a part, does not do away with secondary causes but so provides effects, that the order of secondary causes falls also under providence.”49 Augustine, too, had professed a belief in humans’ free will and capacity for virtue, but increasingly qualified them into near-oblivion by arguing that those originally created qualities had been poisoned and distorted beyond recognition by the Fall; to even begin recovering their true nature and potential required unprovoked, prevenient divine grace. Aquinas, however, is not quite so glum. While he argued that “original sin, being the sin of nature, is an inordinate disposition of nature,”50 properly punished by “death and all consequent bodily defects”51 as well as damnation, and absolutely inescapable except through divine grace,52 he did not see human nature as being so hopelessly corrupt that it was incapable of doing any good on its own. Rather, he taught that even fallen humans retain some of their original goodness: the good of nature, that is diminished by sin, is the natural inclination to virtue, which is befitting to man from the very fact that he is a rational being; for it is due to this that he performs actions in accord with reason, which is to act virtuously. Now sin cannot entirely take away from man the fact that he is a rational being, for then he would no longer be capable of sin. Wherefore it is not possible for this good of nature to be destroyed entirely . . . Even in the lost the natural inclination to virtue remains, else they would have no remorse of conscience.53

Aquinas concludes that while our inheritance of sin greatly diminishes our inclination toward orderly action, grace, the good, and true virtue,54 “human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin, so as to be shorn of every natural good.”


A History of Christian Agency

The result of this is a complex relationship between grace and will. On the one hand, “human nature needs the help of God as First Mover, to do or wish any good whatsoever,”55 even when unfallen, and when fallen requires prevenient healing grace in addition; Aquinas states flatly that “without grace” – which is needed to apprehend divine truth, to will righteousness, to rise from and consistently avoid sin, and to persevere to the end – “man cannot merit everlasting life.”56 The absolute necessity and priority of grace, as a sine qua non of salvation which can be caused only by God,57 are thus firmly established in Thomist thought. But on the other hand, humans’ “natural light of reason” and innate rational inclination to the good remain in what appear to be agentially contributory ways. “As the acquired virtues enable a man to walk, in accordance with the natural light of reason, so do the infused virtues enable a man to walk as befits the light of grace,” and those natural virtues are potent enough to enable at least partial avoidance of sin.58 Aquinas describes justification as a process involving four phases – “the infusion of grace, the movement of the freewill towards God by faith, the movement of the free-will [in recoil from] sin, and the remission of sins” – that are formally sequential but so powerfully initiated that the entire sequence “takes place in an instant.”59 This produces what we might call a free-will sandwich, contained and made simultaneous by the power of God’s atemporal grace, while filled with free response that, with supernatural assistance, follows its own inclinations to their proper and inevitable fulfillment.60 This complex is related to two crucial Thomist distinctions, each of which is usefully illustrative of the core logic and tensions of this system. The first is between “operative grace” (which is absolute and divine, and in which “our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover”) and “co-operative grace” (which is a partnership of divine aid and human agency in which “our mind both moves and is moved”).61 The other is between “condign merit” (which is similarly absolute and divine and gratuitously imputed, and cannot be caused or deserved by humans) and “congruent merit” (in which “it would seem congruous that, if a man does what he can, God should reward him according to the excellence of his power”).62 In each division, there is a primary insistence on an absolute salvific grace that originates and operates exclusively by the power and love of God, and a secondary assertion of a more collaborative (albeit decidedly subordinate) and contingent grace that exists in the cooperation of a perfect divine nature on the one hand, and on the other a human nature that is imperfect but desirous of godly virtue and capable of contributing meaningfully and rewardably to its pursuit.63

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This system, like all of them, carries advantages and disadvantages. On the downside, there is an overall reduction in certainty: while God’s will is always accomplished, human failure is possible, and Thomism does not guarantee perseverance to glory. Aquinas also at times sounds – especially in his emphasis on rational free will as a form of innate goodness, and as a precondition for meaningful moral action and the judgment of our acts – quite like Pelagius.64 On the other hand, one might say that his theology incorporates the most compelling features of Pelagianism without falling into the fundamental heresy of undercutting sin or grace. It maintains a gratifyingly optimistic view of human nature and action, with a role for genuine human cooperation in salvation,65 while also maintaining the seriousness of sin and the greatness and necessity of grace – and for our purposes, that means that while humans need God to act in fully meaningful ways, we can indeed act meaningfully at any point, and will be held fairly to account for the goodness or badness of our own actions. Etienne Tempier, the thirteenth-century bishop of Paris, apparently took a dimmer view when he included a number of Thomistic propositions in his sweeping anti-Averroist condemnations of 1277, which prompted a widespread retreat from the synthetic optimism of Aquinas. Gordon Leff argued half a century ago that this undoing of the philosophy/theology and reason/faith syntheses of Thomism had the effect of repolarizing the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the temporal and the eternal, the human and the divine.66 In the wake of Duns Scotus and especially Ockham, Leff says, “what is so striking about these [fourteenth-century] questions is that they were virtually reduced [from their thirteenth-century forms] to those concerning the relation of free will to divine will, in which grace and predestination, for the first time since the Pelagian controversy of the fourth century, became the central problems.”67 Nominalism’s incomprehensibly sovereign God paradoxically fostered an emphasis on human agency, and in this way what started as an attitude of neutrality towards God and the supernatural seemed inevitably to lead to partisanship for men and the natural . . . Because Ockham makes an act of free will the first condition for its acceptance by God, its natural powers suffice to reach Him. This is the heart of his Pelagianism as viewed by his contemporaries . . . Free will for Ockham, then, is an active and self-directing agent, capable of good deeds of its own and free from the need for grace or any other supernatural habit.68


A History of Christian Agency

This veering toward free will and away from sovereign grace was understood as Pelagian by many of his contemporaries, including Thomas Bradwardine, who argued in De causa Dei contra Pelagium that human nature was thoroughly evil, grace absolutely necessary, God the direct cause of everything that happens, human agency an illusion, all grace operative, and all merit condign. This was Augustinianism amplified, with a determinist ferocity that the saint himself might have blanched at.69 We can gain some sense of Bradwardine’s contemporary force from his brief appearance in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (ll. 414–32), where he is invoked as part of an ironic theological excursus on foreknowledge, necessity, and choice that playfully interrogates the fundamental tensions of a synthetic compromise which, after many centuries of mostly successful containment, had begun to disintegrate. David Aers condenses this late-medieval fragmentation elegantly. Aquinas’ approach develops a theology of the Triune God’s reconciliation with sinners; this involves, through Christ’s work, the transforming love of divine forgiveness in the present . . . But in Ockhamist or “modern” theology the fallen, sinful person is perfectly capable of loving God above all else and for Godself without the transforming grace and love of God, capable, in fact, ex puris naturalibus . . . [For Bradwardine,] God’s causality, God’s agency, seems to be envisaged as divine unicausality in competition with a human agency that must be abolished if divine sovereignty is to be affirmed. What Bradwardine will not imagine is that the Trinity is the source, preserver, and savior of human agency[.]70

These polarized latter responses to Thomist compatibilism had enormous ramifications. Michael Gillespie argues that the basic nominalist paradox of a limitlessly sovereign God and relatively agential humans set the stage for the future. Italian humanism suggested in a Promethean fashion that man could lift himself to the level of God or even in some respects become God. In this sense it was clearly Pelagian, or at least semi-Pelagian. Humanism’s vision of man was thus incompatible with divine omnipotence and with the notion that God was God . . . While humanism thus could not sustain a notion of divine omnipotence, it also could not exist without it. Similarly, Reformation theology could not countenance a free human will and yet could not sustain the notion of a good God in its absence. The humanists and the Reformers were thus entwined in an antinomy from which there was no escape.71

The consequence of the breakdown of scholastic harmony, for Gillespie, is not just redivision but long-term antinomy between the (radicalized)

Aquinas and Aftermath: Synthesis versus Polarization


values of Pelagius and Augustine, and this is the continuing legacy of nominalism even in our own secular time. Indeed, as he traces the development and repressed theological bases of modernity itself from Petrarch and Luther to Descartes, Hobbes, and Kant, his central contention is that we are still living very much in Ockham’s shadow. If Ockham and Bradwardine embody the breakdown of synthetic Thomism,72 late-medieval Catholicism nonetheless operated generally on something like Aquinas’ co-operative model: salvation is impossible without special grace, but also requires deliberate human action in the form of choice, sacraments, penance, good works, and so forth.73 Seen from one angle, this requirement reflects the perennial and eminently sensible conviction that accountability requires meaningful choice and action to be just; seen from another, it might imply that divine grace (and Christ’s sacrifice) are insufficient to save in an absolutely sovereign way. This tension reflects what I have traced as deep and legitimate theological questions, but it also proved vulnerable to abuse in the later middle ages.With the doctrinal definition of purgatory at the councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439), a principle was established that many people (excepting the super-holy or the superevil) died in need of further cleansing before being fit for paradise. It then stood to reason that if purgatorial suffering could purify one’s soul and render one more qualified for heaven, then the same principle might reasonably be applied to one’s godly choices and actions on earth, which might lessen that debt before it was called in. Such a view is, again, intuitively appealing in some ways, but it also had the effect of rendering sin quantifiable, and accounts incrementally balanceable, and these implications make the concurrent rise of indulgences readily comprehensible. Indulgences granted – by drawing on the Churchmanaged, Christ-and-saints-filled “treasury of merit,” dogmatically established by Pope Clement VI in 1343 – the remission of temporal punishments (including purgatorial suffering), in whole or in part, in recognition of a repentant person’s good deeds of prayers, penance, or other merit-making (e.g., pilgrimage, crusading, almsgiving, other financial gifts to the Church).74 An exchange-value for sin, works, and forgiveness thus instituted, it was a short step from there to capitalizing the equation with monetary value, and eventually allowing people to simply purchase mercy with cash. This abusive practice, satirized by Chaucer and Langland in the fourteenth century, famously triggered a far more widespread and consequential reaction in the sixteenth.


A History of Christian Agency

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading The fundraising practices deriving from the renovation of St. Peter’s basilica by Pope Leo X were felt in some parts of Europe to be particularly offensive, with indulgences in some cases being simply and crassly exchanged for cash. It was this issue that provoked Luther’s 95 Theses, and indeed most of the Theses work toward critical interrogation of their logic and practice. Had Luther’s critique been limited to this specific abuse, this would have been a minor episode of internal reform, of interest only to the most assiduous of church historians. But it became a revolution because the indulgence controversy touched directly on deep and unresolved tensions in Christian doctrine: sin, agency, grace, salvation, the relation of human and divine action. Though Aquinas had perhaps come closest to achieving permanent structural resolution of these problems, the late-medieval breakdown of his synthetic optimism paved the way for the explosive release of these suspended energies by a tempestuous German monk. The radicality of the Lutheran attack quickly became apparent to both sides, and the Church soon recruited one of its foremost biblical scholars, Erasmus of Rotterdam, to help put the heresy down by attacking it at its agential roots. As the preeminent northern humanist, and a reformist Catholic himself, Erasmus had a great deal of sympathy for much of Luther’s agenda (it is often said that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”). But when the call came, he came to the defense of the Church and its limited doctrinal commitment to free will, choice, and human agency in his 1524 De libero arbitrio. Erasmus begins his “diatribe” with a degree of diffidence and demurral remarkable in contemporary religious polemic. He dislikes assertions, and prefers the position of skeptic; he has, “as yet, no fixed conviction, except that I think there to be a certain power of free choice”;75 he “might well be mistaken, and for that reason [plays] the debater, not the judge; the inquirer, not the dogmatist” (38); he distinguishes between absolute truth and practical utility, and thinks the latter often pastorally preferable to the former;76 he thinks Scripture contains many truths that are unclear or altogether unknowable, and prefers a simple faith in which we strive with all our might and have recourse to the remedy of penitence that by all means we may entreat the mercy of the Lord without which no human will or endeavor is effective; and what is evil in us, let us impute to ourselves, and what is good, let us ascribe wholly to divine benevolence, to which we owe our very being (39).

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


The argumentative hand is significantly tipped here, particularly in its tensions of attribution, and between striving and helplessness; Erasmus appears to be aiming not at decisive resolution so much as a workable truce. But this is, after all, a polemic, and the things he here identifies as hidden or obscure – “whether God foreknows anything contingently; whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation; whether it simply suffers the action of grace; whether what we do, be it of good or ill, we do by necessity or rather suffer to be done to us” (39) – can of course not be left alone, as they are at the heart of a debate in which he has taken up the cause of one side. As he moves toward his argument, Erasmus implausibly contends that nobody but Manichaeus and Wyclif has ever held Luther’s view (43), but he also makes a much more important recognition: that the agency issue is an issue of scriptural interpretation, and that interpretation is in turn an issue of both authority and agency.77 As was typical, Protestants relied on the authority of individual reading of the Bible – even, or especially, when that reading ran counter to traditional Catholic teaching – while Catholics dismissed as insane the notion that one person’s interpretation could trump fifteen centuries of Christian consensus among saints, scholars, and councils, or that the Holy Spirit would inspire the reading of individuals more than the corporate history of Christ’s Church.78 Erasmus quite amusingly critiques what he sees as the circularity and solipsism of the Protestant position, though one suspects that his heart is not entirely in it (he was himself an advocate of individual Bible-reading), and at any rate, the problem will return to haunt his own argument. Given the modest diffidence of Erasmus’ introductory discussion (which he closes by asserting that “I claim for myself neither learning nor holiness, nor do I trust in my own spirit” [46]), it is somewhat surprising to see him go on to open his argument proper with what we might see as a dare. He defines the central issue as follows: “By free choice in this place we mean a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them” (47). While not absolutely incorrect, it is an oddly one-sided definition, considering that it makes no mention of grace, which had always been the crucial factor in determining Christian free will and agency; the divine role is very present later in the argument, but this opening definition has long been regarded as theologically defective. Luther would remark (173–6) in mock astonishment that, in asserting a self-enclosed and decisive power of soteriological choice, in half a will, without any reference to grace whatsoever, Erasmus had outdone even the Pelagians and “almost turn[ed] Pelagius into an Evangelical” (176).


A History of Christian Agency

Erasmus’ primary targets are those who, in their efforts to avoid Pelagian error, either effectively neuter human agency (by contending that “grace alone accomplishes good works in us, not by or with free choice but in free choice” [53]) or deny it completely “in the case of the angels or in Adam or in us, either before or after grace,” thus making it God “who works evil as well as good in us, and all things that happen come about by sheer necessity” (54). We can discern here the stakes of this argument, and they are high. If we have no meaningful soteriological agency and no good works to call our own, then both human dignity and divine justice are mortally imperiled; God would be an evil-causing tyrant, and we his inert puppets to be punished at his malevolent pleasure. In declaring humans unfit for good, and God to be the sole cause of all things, Luther and his ilk inadvertently “ascribe cruelty and injustice to God” (92), and make him “worse than the tyrant Dionysus of Sicily” (94). Erasmus trusts, rather, that a good and just God would both create and preserve the moral freedom of his creatures, even if in a self-attenuated state, and even though “our will is perhaps more prone to evil than to good, yet no one is actually forced to do evil without his consent” (77). We are not just clay, or wax; we are moral agents, made in the image of a moral God, and on that claim hangs the ethical structure of both creation and its creator. As Cummings sums it up, “Erasmus describes a world in which choices can always be made, and justice can always be done, because he believes that otherwise the world is irredeemably unjust, and God with it.”79 Erasmus seems particularly galled by Luther’s assertion, which he quotes directly and pointedly (64), that I [Luther] was wrong in saying that free choice before grace is a reality only in name. I should have said simply: “free choice is in reality a fiction, or a name without reality.” For no one has it in his own power to think a good or bad thought, but everything (as Wyclif’s article condemned at Constance rightly teaches) happens by absolute necessity.

Against such resolute determinism, Erasmus operates quite conventionally in some ways. He adduces copious scriptural citations, even from the Pauline books, that seem to clearly indicate choice, accountability, contingency of reward and punishment (“How inapposite was the conjunction ‘if’ when all was necessity!” [59]), merit and demerit, and the importance of works and decisions of faith; that exhort, threaten, encourage, promise, and cajole all to faithfully meritorious action. These things all imply some degree of human agency, for a just logic of consequence requires it; a being that punishes what cannot be avoided must be cruel and unjust, and this cannot be true of God

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


(88, 92, 94). Furthermore, the rhetoric of aid supports this, as “who is said to give help except to one who is himself in action?” (85). You don’t “help” a stone; you pick it up and break it, or throw it, or mortar it into a fireplace; you only “help” something that is doing something. So pervasive is this motif in the Bible, Erasmus argues, that not only possibility but ease is indicated (57), and if one denies human agency, “the greater part of Scripture will seem to lose its force” (58). Nonetheless, Erasmus acknowledges that there is an undeniably similar copia of biblical passages that suggest human helplessness and the totality and arbitrariness of divine ordination: Pharaoh, Esau, Judas, the potter and the clay. The biblical testimony seems to be self-contradictory, but this possibility has already been ruled out (47), and he thus must find another solution. “Why,” he asks (72), “do those who urge on us the literal words of Holy Scripture, and with the parable of the potter and the vessel [Rom. 9, II Tim. 2] to be taken as it stands, not allow us an equally literal interpretation of that other passage: ‘If anyone purifies himself’?” In accusing his opponents of interpretive injustice and inconsistency here, Erasmus acknowledges its apparent basis in the Bible, and the consequent need for some hermeneutic flexibility: “such illustrations are adduced in the Scriptures for the sake of their teaching, but not in such a way as to be always consistent” (71). Such a freeing of the nonliteral from a strict obligation to consistency presents both a danger and an opportunity. If you wish to twist the one passage to support a special interpretation, man does nothing. On the other hand, if you wish to turn the other to your cause, man does it all. If man does nothing, there is no room for merits; where there is no room for merits, there is no room for punishments or rewards. If man does all, there is no room for grace, which Paul urges so many times. The Holy Spirit does not fight against himself, whose inspiration produced the canonical Scriptures. Both sides embrace and acknowledge the inviolable majesty of Scripture, but an interpretation must be found which will unravel this knot (73).

Some interpretive finesse, in other words, is needed to grasp the complex but unified teaching of the Bible – but one must avoid the danger of arbitrary and extreme ideological overreading, to which Erasmus attributes “the thunders and lightnings which now shake the world” (95), and the play of which is potentially indefinite and unresolvable. He implicitly suggests a workable interpretive method by reading all scriptural assertions of absolute divine agency rhetorically and figurally (especially as hyperbole): whenever the Bible affirms that salvation is wholly accomplished by God, Erasmus reads its intent as being not doctrinal but hortatory and


A History of Christian Agency

reassuring to the faithful, reminding them that a benevolent God is the senior partner in their journey toward heaven, and steering them away from inappropriate extremes of pride or despair and toward humility and gratitude. “[W]e should not arrogate anything to ourselves but attribute all things we have received to the divine grace, which called us when we were turned away, which purified us by faith, which gave us this gift, that our will might be synergos (‘fellow-worker’) with grace, although grace is itself sufficient for all things and has no need of the assistance of any human will” (81). Now one might see this, especially when combined with his relentlessly straightforward reading of passages that appear to affirm agency, as simply an inversion of what Erasmus found so objectionable when Protestants did it, but he appears to have thought otherwise – that it was a potential resolution of a binary problem into which both Pelagius and Luther had fallen. He concludes the second part of his book quite triumphantly: “And so these passages, which seem to be in conflict with one another, are easily brought into harmony if we join the striving of our will with the assistance of divine grace” (74). In a simultaneous assertion of hermeneutic and spiritual will, an act of executive interpretation harmonizes the scriptural evidence and brings God and humanity into a gratifyingly cooperative relationship, appearing to reconcile extremes on both counts. It is also an interesting answer to Erasmus’ own question about the uselessness of Lutheran determinism (41): truth and pastoral utility are preserved on both sides, but on the determinist side only in rhetorical senses. Real truth and utility lie in synergistic human action. Erasmus uses all this to drive at the moderate position he had promised and in fact laid out at the beginning of his book: while he insists on the necessity of both divine and human agency, he sees the human role as so small that we might as well, for gratitude and humility’s sake, credit God for what it accomplishes (even though we know we brought something important to the table). At the same time, what makes that “extremely small” contribution of free human choice (89) so crucial is not so much what it gives to humans, but that it preserves the justice and goodness of God. As he puts it in closing (96): Why, you will say, grant anything to free choice? In order to have something to impute justly to the wicked who have voluntarily come short of the grace of God, in order that the calumny of cruelty and injustice may be excluded from God, that despair may be kept away from us, that complacency may be excluded also, and that we may be incited to endeavor. For these reasons, almost everyone admits free choice, but as inefficacious apart from the perpetual grace of God, lest we arrogate aught to ourselves. One may object,

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


to what does free choice avail if it accomplishes nothing? I reply, to what does the whole man avail if God so works in him as a potter with clay and just as he could act on a pebble?

Erasmus’ argument is appealing because it appears to uphold divine justice and give something meaningful to humanity without taking anything away from God.80 If we conceive the problem of human and divine agency as a continuum, Erasmus is really inclined to reject only the absolute extremes of that spectrum (Pelagius and Luther, more or less, i.e., the incompatibilists); as the frequent vagueness of his theological constructions and judgments indicates, between the two are a wide range of hybrid models that might be right, and thus should be tolerated. Prior history, though, was devoid of successful, lasting attempts to resolve this problem synthetically. The historical polarization of Pelagianism and Augustinianism, and the theological logics that drove it, suggest that the agency problem may structurally be a zero-sum either/or proposition rather than a symbiotic both/and one. Perhaps in consequence of this, or just of the difficulty inherent in holding the two poles in tension, the theology of De libero arbitrio is somewhat inexact. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Erasmus is forwarding his own opinion or representing those of others, and indeed there are passages in which both those views and his views of them blur together. At times Erasmus sounds like Aquinas, insisting on the unextinguished powers of reason and will; at others like Augustine, insisting on human helplessness without grace; sometimes like both in the same paragraph or sentence (e.g., 49, twice, including one crucial sentence that the translators complain is “among the most obscure in the entire discourse”). He cites Pelagius multiple times, sometimes observing that he went too far (89, 96), but other times neglecting to do so and thus leaving the impression that there is some value in his heretical teachings (49, 51, 90). And when he complains that Luther and others exaggerate the significance of original sin (93–4), or outlines a three-phase model of human righteousness (80, 90) in which grace bookends a middle phase that rests on human shoulders, it is difficult not to hear at least a faint echo of Pelagius – but without the carefully engineered containment structure which Aquinas had been so careful to build around that echo. If Erasmus’ argument for the human capacity to will and choose and act is, paradoxically, itself marked by diffidence and ambiguity, Luther’s is precisely the opposite, a brazenly assured assertion of human incapacity in spiritual matters founded on hermeneutic confidence. Indeed, he begins by


A History of Christian Agency

castigating Erasmus’ professions of limit, uncertainty, and skepticism, and proclaiming that Christianity properly understood is a grand assertion that requires many smaller ones, not timid efforts at reconciliation that are “evasive and equivocal” (103). “This is the cardinal issue between us,” Luther declares, and clarity on it is crucial because If I am ignorant of what, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me, what, how far, and how much God can and may do in me . . . this problem is one half of the whole sum of things Christian, since on it both knowledge of oneself and the knowledge and glory of God quite vitally depend (116–7).

Theology and anthropology very often imply one another, and we can see a calculus of reciprocal boundary here: I cannot know how far God extends if I don’t know my own extent and limit, and without that I can’t really understand the nature of either God or myself. The scandal of Erasmus, therefore, is the incursion of human will upon the total sovereignty of God (“attributing divinity to free choice” [173]); Luther’s counterargument is, unsurprisingly, that God “foreknows nothing contingently, but . . . foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will” (118; this is “the other half of the Christian summa” [117] and the “one supreme consolation of Christians” [122]). From this it follows that everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably . . . [Scripture] represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive (119, 193).

This is an undeniably grim anthropology, with depressing epistemological implications, but in Luther’s view it is the only way to properly account for the depth and pervasiveness of sin, and the totality of our need for grace; anything else is a diabolical illusion. Two important distinctions frame the argument that will be tenaciously pursued for the next several hundred pages, and the first is simply categorical, a clarification of what realms of experience are under discussion. [F]ree choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him and not what is above him. That is to say, a man should know that with regard to his faculties and possessions he has the right to use, to do, or to

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


leave undone, according to his own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way he pleases. On the other hand in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan (143).

The ostensible point here is an acknowledgement that humans exercise genuine free choice between real options in mundane matters such as “eating, drinking, begetting, ruling” (286), and in that sphere we can make good choices and do good things81 (though even this is not in principle exempt from God’s sovereign prerogative to cause or determine if he sees fit, and thus does not rule out the possibility of universal causation and determinism). But even such good deeds, outside of grace and faith, avail us nothing in terms of salvation or righteousness (307–8); concerning our eternal salvation or damnation, we can do nothing of positive value on our own, and this model of soteriological agency, in which humans definitively lack the capacity to contribute to their own salvation, is the subject of the treatise. The second and more important distinction is definitional. Luther uses the word “necessity” repeatedly, but finds it clumsy, “harsh and incongruous” (120), and makes clear that it is the antithesis of both contingency and compulsion. The human will, like God’s, “does what it does . . . from sheer pleasure or desire, as with true freedom,” unforced; “when a man is without the Spirit of God he does not do evil against his will . . . but he does it of his own accord and with a ready will” (139). The problem, in true (albeit hardened) Augustinian fashion, is that without grace the human heart cannot will or do the only good that ultimately matters. Sin is neither caused nor compelled by God; in committing it, the fallen will is doing exactly what it wants to do. Indeed, the only thwarting of that will is grace itself, which by intervening liberates it into the possibility (and indeed the certainty, in what Luther describes as a positive form of enslavement) of something other than sin. So necessity denotes not compulsion, but simply something that could not have just as well gone otherwise: the fallen will cannot incline toward the good on its own – we cannot simply unwill our sinfulness (173, 175) – and if grace intervenes, it will do so necessarily. The difference is not randomness or force or mere happenstance, but immutable divine will liberating the human and making it capable of desiring the true good. As Charles Taylor describes the Protestant view, Humans can do nothing to earn or bring about [salvation], so fundamentally all they can do is acknowledge it. This is what it is to have faith. In the logic of Reformed theology, even this minimal participation, even faith, is a gift from God; but it is the kind of participation which, unlike the good


A History of Christian Agency works of Catholic piety, has built in a recognition of our own nullity, of our own zero contribution to God’s saving action.82

In this light, and considering the mutually agreed centrality of biblical interpretation, it is not surprising that Luther’s refutation of Erasmus is significantly conducted in interpretive, rhetorical, and indeed grammatical terms. When he responds to Erasmus’ reading (47–8) of Ecclesiasticus 15:15, his objection is not a matter of canonicity but of grammar. Erasmus had taken the conditional if of “If thou wilt observe the commandments, and keep acceptable fidelity forever, they shall preserve thee” as a promised reward for a chosen (and necessarily possible) course of action, and thus as clear proof of free choice.83 But Luther rejects this reading, arguing instead that the subjunctive of “if thou wilt” asserts nothing indicatively (183–4); if you tell a deaf person, “if you listen, I will tell you a good story,” your “if” says and does nothing about their ability to listen. Erasmus assumes that these kinds of conditionals mock us if we are not free, but Luther demonstrates their positive rhetorical potential. “How often do parents have a game with their children by telling them to come to them, or to do this or that, simply for the sake of showing them how unable they are, and compelling them to call for the help of the parents’ hand!” This in turn sets up his critique of Erasmus’ use of ethical imperatives in scripture – watch, seek, ask, pray, do, turn, come, repent, believe – all of which he had claimed “seem empty and vain if they all refer to necessity” (60), and thus must inevitably imply the human capacity to carry them out.84 Erasmus, that is, reads these imperatives as implicit indicatives of the human discernment and choice upon which they must be predicated. Brian Cummings usefully connects this forward in time to the “ought implies can” principle of modern ethical philosophy (especially in R. M. Hare), and sees in its “bland complacency” the same inadequacy and false equivalence that Luther saw in Erasmus.85 This recognized, it is not difficult to guess where Luther’s argument is headed. The apparent common sense of Erasmus’ inference is inverted under the prevailing circumstances of reality, and for Luther those circumstances are principally fallenness and sin, which render us incapable of carrying out these relatively straightforward-seeming directives. As a result, in a mirror image of Erasmus’ logic, these subjunctives and imperatives and exhortations in the end point not to capacity but to radical incapacity, not to free choice but to enslavement; they are ironically indicative after all, but of lack rather than possession. And this is precisely the Pauline and Lutheran logic of the Law, which in its unfulfillable imperatives serves primarily to demonstrate humanity’s inability to be independently righteous before God (302–9). In this scenario, fallen humans operating

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


according to their wills must necessarily fail, and this recognition affirms the necessity of gospel grace if the outcome is to be different. Though the reward of salvation accrues to us, it is not due to our independent acts or merits, but to God’s own work in us (309–12). It is grace, and grace only, that can convert the tragic irony of law’s impossible imperatives into the triumphant mystery of justification and fulfillment. Perhaps this is related to Luther’s confidence in the unified clarity of the Bible, and his scorn for Erasmus’ professions of obscurity and uncertainty. By subsuming the biblical suggestions of free will under the Pauline rule of testimonial law and conviction, Luther is able to claim that no sophistical hermeneutic is needed to square the Bible with itself. All that is needed is the interpretive light of the Spirit, which will by grace make clear the transcendent unity of the scripture. Those who see these passages as contradictory are blind, lazy, and most importantly ungraced: “let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God” (111–12). To be one of the elect, then, is not only to have acknowledged one’s soteriological helplessness and embraced the necessity of total grace; it is also to recognize and affirm, or at least accept in faith, the noncontradictory clarity of the Word in these matters – but to do so in a way diametrically opposed to that of Erasmus. For the sake of God’s justice and goodness, and to ethically integrate human effort with God’s, Erasmus wants to preserve noncontradiction by harmonizing divine agency with human agency; this is why he rejects only the exclusive extremes of this continuum, and is willing to recognize the claims of almost any position in between as potentially correct (though he explicitly stakes out a position very far onto the grace side of the spectrum). Luther does precisely the opposite, excluding the compatibilist middle and insisting repeatedly that only the two incompatible extremes of Pelagianism and Lutheranism are possible: as he asserts more than once, either the will does everything or it does nothing, and when Christ said that “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5), he meant exactly that. The Erasmian spirit of synthesis and compromise is, in his view, a presumptuous effort to judge and justify the inscrutable and unjudgeable will of God (258–63), and can only be self-contradictory and lacking in true conviction.86 It is founded hermeneutically on a failure to properly distinguish law from gospel, command from promise, imperative from indicative, works from grace. “It is therefore,” Luther says, “the mark of a discerning reader of Scripture to notice what are words of law and what of grace, so as not to have them all jumbled up as the filthy Sophists and this yawning Diatribe do” (197).


A History of Christian Agency

Erasmus stipulates at the beginning of De libero that he and Luther do not disagree about the authority of the Bible but rather how to read it: “our battle is about the meaning of Scripture” (43). Luther correspondingly observes that “the controversy here is not about the text itself, nor is it any longer about inferences and similes, but about tropes and interpretations” (220). He advocates, in familiar early-Protestant fashion, a cautious approach to figural interpretation, and recommends that we “shun as deadliest poison every trope that Scripture itself does not force upon us” (221) by making its figurality clear or denying us a sensible literal construction.87 But such literalist inclinations do not free him from the necessity of reading, and he, like his opponent, makes critical decisions about which parts of the Bible are clear and which must be subjected to exegetical pressure. Erasmus sees free will as explicitly implied in scriptural imperatives and subjunctives, and reads scripture’s deterministic declarations as pastoral hyperbole of assurance and exhortation to humility. Luther sees the latter declarations as uncontestable fact, and reads the former as thinly veiled iterations of the law which properly understood are meant only to convict us of our spiritual paralysis and drive us to grace. It is striking how two figures in such close theological proximity – what Erasmus argues for is after all only an infinitesimal human agency, so small that we shouldn’t take any credit for it – are driven to such similar but diametrically opposed hermeneutic strategies, but the stakes are high. Erasmus rejects as blasphemously unjust the notion of a God whose elective judgments are absolutely arbitrary and uncaused by human action or choice, while for Luther, such a God is not just the only one worth believing in, but also our only hope. Near the end of De servo, after hundreds of pages of bludgeoning and bullying his opponent, Luther offers a moment of rather touching selfrevelation in which he explains why this issue is so important to him personally. Even if personal soteriological agency were possible, he says, I would not want it, because on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of it amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons . . . on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty . . . But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him (328–9).

Luther versus Erasmus: Power, Justice, and Reading


Luther’s agonies as an anxiously overachieving Augustinian monk at Erfurt are well known, and helped precipitate his radical turn to sola gratia. Looking back at his own past, having made that turn, he acknowledges still that he, like all sinners, could only screw things up. This is why even Erasmus’ miniscule role for independent choice is unacceptable: if any part of my salvation depends on me, Luther asserts, I am doomed – not because I am especially evil, but because all humans are stained to the core by sin. Only God is able to do it right and see it through, and this conviction is a source of profound comfort. By God’s working alone, “if not all, some and indeed many are saved,” whereas if matters hinged on us at all, “none at all would be saved.” Moreover, since we are not saved by our own actions or merits, grace entails that “if we do less than we should or do it badly, [God] does not hold this against us, but in a fatherly way pardons and corrects us” in mysteriously unconditional (and thus uncontingent) love. This in turn means, paradoxically, that sinners who recognize their damnable guilt and helplessness do not have to worry; they are in the unfailing and merciful hands of a God who has promised to save those to whom he has given faith. Luther’s lengthy response to Erasmus’ provocation is of course largely composed of laceration, pummeling, excoriation, and withering scorn in the form of critical argument. But at its very end, it takes the form of unironic encomium. He calls Erasmus “a great man, richly endowed” with talent, learning, and eloquence, who has earned Luther’s respect in one particularly important way. I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles . . . You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot; for which I sincerely thank you (333).

One is both relieved and vaguely disappointed that this is not followed by the kind of insulting zinger that we have by now been conditioned to expect. Its absence underscores the importance of Luther’s praise: Erasmus alone has, to the benefit of truth, raised “the question on which everything hinges,” the central issue to which all others are secondary. As the combatants’ frequent recourse to Augustine and Pelagius indicates, the issue is at its core a very old one, but that very oldness is indicative of its continuing import and vitality. If the instigator and presiding spirit of Protestantism affirms that the question of agency is the master issue of the Reformation, we would do well to attend more closely to its manifold implications throughout the early modern period.


A History of Christian Agency

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency Though Luther considered this argument decisively won, De servo arbitrio was not the last word on the matter. Erasmus responded to it at great length in his two-volume Hyperaspistes, which Luther did not bother to answer. Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon, whose 1521 Loci Communes was so determinist and monergistic that Luther recommended it to Erasmus as an “unanswerable little book” (102), spent the next two decades searching for a middle position between the two giants which sought to avoid both the implicit Pelagianism of Erasmus’ position and the possible Manicheanism of his friend’s. Melanchthon came to argue in later editions of the Loci that conversion had a triple cause of “the word, the Holy Spirit, and the human will assenting to the word of God rather than resisting it,” on the principle that the “total image of God has not been destroyed and altogether abolished in the fall of man, as many falsely contend.”88 While the first two of these efficient causes were entirely agreeable to Luther, the third was a moderating move toward Erasmus and the synergistic tradition he represented. That this tension can be seen so early in the Reformation, and between Luther and his own right-hand man, indicates that the issue was far from settled. The main throughline of non-Lutheran Protestantism was subsequently established by Luther’s younger Swiss-French counterpart John Calvin. While Calvin diverged from Luther on some points of theology – particularly sacramental theology, which became the cardinal point of difference between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants – on the question of agency he not only adopted Luther’s position but clarified and amplified it. In his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin contends that though the image of God in humanity was “not utterly annihilated and defaced” in Adam’s fall, “yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is but horrible deformity”; consequently, our recovery can only begin with “the restoration we obtain through Christ.”89 It is not enough to understand and glorify God solely or primarily as creator and establisher of natural law; Christians must understand and glorify him “no less in the perpetual state of the world than in its first origin” (1.16.1), sustaining and saturating his creation by a sovereign providence so purposeful and complete that it denies “fortune and fortuitous accidents” (1.16.2). On the contrary, “all events are governed by the secret counsel of God,” who is “vigilant, efficacious, operative, and engaged in continual action” that ordains and causes everything that happens on an ongoing basis (1.16.3), “holding the helm of the universe, and regulating all events” (1.16.4) from the movements of the stars to “the deliberations and volitions of men,” and to the point of excluding “any contingence dependent on the human will” (1.16.8).

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency


Calvin’s very thorough model of divine causation suggests a highly determinist, hyper-Augustinian view of the universe along the lines of Bradwardine, in which the human will has no autonomous freedom at all.90 But his collation of this with our radical sin indicates precisely why such thorough providentialism is both necessary and good: if even the unfallen Adam and Eve were beneficiaries of the intimate care of God,91 surely their thoroughly corrupted legatees of sin stand in existentially desperate need of it. The great consolation of this (1.17.11) is that despite their guilt and sin, Christians can have the complete peace and security of knowing that they are under the providential protection of their loving father, who also happens to be the creator and sustainer of the universe. This emphatically does not, however, excuse humans from responsibility, because divine providence typically works through intermediary means: if one chooses to transgress God’s will as revealed in Scripture, or neglects to eat food, the consequences rightly belong to the willing actor and not to God (1.17.3–6, 1.17.9). While all that happens derives from the unsearchable will of God in which all is finally hidden, humans are obligated to make use of all his providential means, and meet events “as doubtful contingencies” (1.17.4) which they, as secondary agents, must in any case properly address. Though God ordains all, it is the human agent’s continual duty to discern divine providence, and align oneself with it in practice. For these reasons, “man, being taught that he has nothing good left in his possession . . . should, nevertheless, be instructed to aspire to the good of which he is destitute, and the liberty of which he is deprived” (2.2.1), even though he cannot attain it on his own – because not doing so would be to turn away from grace. When Calvin specifically unfolds the implications of the Fall for the human will in the second book of the Institutes, he sounds much like Luther. The philosophers, he argues, have overestimated the residual value of the fallen will, and the church fathers (with the exception of Augustine) have conceded too much to them, with the result that medieval theology made the error of crediting humans with a cooperative role in justification (2.2.2–6). All humans really have, though, is not a will capable of doing good but simply a fallen will free of constraint or coercion, which will therefore voluntarily but inevitably choose things other than God (2.3.5);92 and is that something worth dignifying with the name of free will? Calvin thinks not (2.2.7), and argues that loose use of the term engenders an erroneously and indeed sacrilegiously prideful misunderstanding of human nature (2.2.10) which perpetuates our alienation from God. This is not to say that we have nothing, nor is Calvin the total antihumanist that he is


A History of Christian Agency

sometimes made out to be. “Some sparks continue to shine in the nature of man,” which is still rational and “attracted with a love of truth” even if it cannot fully pursue it (2.2.12). In the realm of “terrestrial things,” therefore – including civil polity, domestic economy, all the mechanical arts and liberal sciences, and even the pursuit of worldly truth and ethics – humans are possessed of “excellent talents” which should be valued by all who believe that all truth and goodness come from God (2.2.12–17). Calvin, somewhat surprisingly given his dour reputation, is in the Institutes much more enthusiastically and lyrically affirmative of sublunary human capacity than Luther is in De servo.93 Nevertheless, that capacity without special grace cannot achieve or even aspire to the knowledge or embrace of God (2.2.18–27). “This light is smothered by so much ignorance, that it cannot act with any degree of efficacy. So the will, being inseparable from the nature of man, is not annihilated; but it is fettered by depraved and inordinate desires, so that it cannot aspire after any thing that is good” (2.2.12). The general blessings of reason and natural law without the special illumination of the Spirit do not lead to correct apprehensions of God, or ourselves, or our need for the intervention of grace. Whatever its inherent goods might be, in its partial illumination the law of nature ultimately conspires with the law of Moses to testify against humanity. It can supply us with dim notions of good, sufficient to render us accountable, but cannot enable us to reach up to God ourselves. We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are all held under the yoke of sin. Now, if the whole man be subject to the dominion of sin, the will, which is the principal seat of it, must necessarily be bound with the firmest bonds. Nor would there otherwise be any consistency in the assertion of Paul, “that it is God that worketh in us to will” (Phil. 2:13), if any will preceded the grace of the Spirit . . . “Nothing is ours, but sin” (Psalm 51:10) (2.2.27) . . . The will, therefore, is so bound by the slavery of sin, that it cannot excite itself, much less devote itself to anything good; for such a disposition is the beginning of a conversion to God, which in the Scriptures is attributed solely to Divine grace (2.3.5).

If this is indeed the situation of humanity, whose soul is under a “voluntary and free yet pernicious necessity,” then it follows necessarily that reconciliation with God must originate in the will and activity of a rescuing God. Justification is not a cooperative effort involving human merit, let alone a grateful supernatural response to it, but a gratuitous and unilateral divine action in which the human will receives a “total transformation and renovation,” and is “converted from an evil into a good one” (2.3.6). And

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency


since nothing we do or deserve plays any role in this, the only meaningful thing we do in our justification is to gratefully believe (3.11) – and even that is not really our original act, but a testamentary acknowledgement of a gift already bestowed and received, without which even faith would not have been possible. The attendant recognition that we believe and are justified through God’s action and not our own is the foundation of true peace (3.13.3). And it is also the foundation of truly meritorious works, critical to the process of sanctification, in which the justified and rectified soul does good works in gratitude to God, and out of a desire to conform itself increasingly to Christ in lived righteousness (3.14–17). Thus divine grace, bestowed on an undeserving sinner, rebounds back to heaven in the form of good works – which, in crucial distinction from synergistic models, exclusively proceed out of justifying grace rather preceding, triggering, or independently cooperating with it – which are in turn credited to the believer who could not have done them on his or her own in the first place. Good action, in short, issues from a soul that has been freed from sin to will and do the good. Most or all of Calvin’s teaching here would be heartily agreeable to Luther, and to Augustine, but Calvin’s explicit emphasis on God’s comprehensive causal power leads him to double down on some principles that they had left largely implicit or unexplored. If God has a single omnipotent will (and not, as some medieval theologians had suggested, one that desires and one that ordains absolutely94), and if that will is comprehensively causal and infallibly efficacious, a number of consequences follow. The most important and notorious, and the one most associated with Calvin, is the doctrine of double predestination, which contended that God does not just decree the salvation of his elect, but also actively decrees the damnation of the reprobate (as opposed to simply not electing them in a more passive act of preterition). This is a fearsome doctrine, declaring as it does that the eternal suffering of some is just as resolutely ordained by God as is the eternal bliss of others.95 But it is not the sum or essence of Calvin’s teaching (though many literary critics seem to think it is) – only a handful of chapters in the Institutes are focused on it, and none in its first edition – nor is it original to him. It is simply a logical consequence of determinist divine sovereignty that had been quite explicitly advanced by Gottschalk and Wycliffe, and was quite implicit in Augustine and Luther, though they had not pursued it as relentlessly as Calvin does. For if, as even Aquinas had argued, “the number of the elect is certain,” and/or the destination of each individual infallibly foreknown, then the fate of the unsaved remainder is the same whether God’s not-saving of them is passive


A History of Christian Agency

or deliberate – and if that is the case, the logic of double predestination implicitly suggests, it is better to claim it as an aspect of absolute sovereignty than to relegate it to mere neglect. That sovereignty, Calvin argues, is beyond human understanding, and cannot ultimately be investigated without blasphemous presumption. God’s decrees may not seem right to us, but faith requires that we assume their justice and goodness, and seek no explanation beyond God’s announced will. Even for Calvin, though, reprobation is a “just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment” (3.21.7), and he exhibits some palpable discomfort in his efforts to account for it. Yes, he admits, there is a universal call to God, but as Jesus says in Matthew 22:14, “many are called, but few are chosen” (3.22.10, 3.24.15–17) efficaciously. Yes, some believers do not persevere, but they must not have been effectually called and thus not elect to begin with (3.24.7–8); their eventual ejection is a demonstration of God’s righteous power and human sinfulness. Yes, reprobation is an unpleasant doctrine, but since the Bible teaches it, it is necessarily true, and since God does it, it is necessarily good; for the faithful, it underscores God’s power, care, and unmerited solicitude for his arbitrarily chosen flock, and should thus inspire humble awe and praise. Calvin’s rationalizations and evasions are evident here, but they are unavoidable, given his primary commitments to God’s sovereignty, grace, and revelation. And, to be fair, he does not revel in reprobation so much as acknowledge its logical necessity: the inescapable destruction of the reprobate is simply the unfortunate flipside to the inescapable salvation of the elect, and only the former fate can be considered fairly earned. Reprobation highlights and substantiates the helplessness of sinful humans, the ineffable majesty of God, and finally the inexplicable beauty of grace; it is thus the tragically irreducible shadow of a doctrine that is, for Calvin, in the end radically positive and sublimely reassuring.96 From the same bases derive two rather sunnier, if not uncomplicated or incontestable, corollaries. One is that grace is unfailing and irresistible; its sinful object has no right of refusal, no choice. If God moves one’s will, he does not do so “in such a manner that it would afterwards be at our option either to obey the impulse or to resist it, but by an efficacious influence” (2.3.10). The true calling to God, once initiated, cannot be rejected or annulled or bumbled, but only obeyed. There is no unregenerated part of the human will that could positively embrace the first ticklings of grace; only a will prepared and reclaimed by prevenient grace can do that, and God’s manifested and purposed desire cannot be overridden by his creation – nor would a renewed will wish to do anything but joyously embrace

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency


this gift. The corollary of grace’s irresistibility is its extension in time, by which God guarantees the perseverance of his elect to glorification. Just as humans are not saved by their own independent choice or merit, so they are not sustained by those things but by God’s unchanging and unfailing determination. These are relatively benevolent principles that accentuate the positive, and nourish peace and assurance. But as Calvin himself notes, they are relatively difficult to fully reconcile with experience: some people hear the call but refuse it, and some believe and then fall away. His explanation in both cases is that the subjects in question were not really elect, and either declined an imagined call or had a false and temporary faith. The true calling of election can be neither resisted nor lost. Counter-Reformation Catholicism, unsurprisingly, rejected both of these corollaries as well as their monergistic foundation,97 and indeed it denounced the notions that grace and free will (or merit) were antitheses, and that there could be negative moral accountability without free choice. In keeping with the practical synergism of Erasmus, it resoundingly denied perseverance, assurance, and irresistibility as well as passively received total grace without merit or cooperation. In its sixth session, the Council of Trent affirmed the absolute necessity of grace for salvation (chs. 1 and 5), thus reiterating its anti-Pelagian bona fides, but also insisted on the value of good works (ch. 16, canons 31–32); the survival of a weakened but viable free will in humans (canons 4–5); the need for human assent and cooperation with grace, and the possibility of rejecting it (ch. 5, canon 9); and the ever-present possibility of misapprehension and failure, against the false guarantees of assurance and perseverance (chs. 9, 12–13; canons 15–16).98 In short, in response to a Protestant vision of passive soteriological certainty, in which humans are objects of the absolute will of God, Tridentine Catholicism reasserted an active uncertainty in which God typically responds (if proleptically) to humangenerated contingency. Predestination proceeds not merely from God’s mysterious and arbitrary will, but in response to (and in conjunction with) the infallibly foreseen choices that God knows an individual will make; likewise, God does not ordain sin or damnation, but foresees it and judges accordingly. Nonresolution has been a recurring theme of this discussion – unsurprisingly so, given the delicate, necessary, and necessarily imprecise relationship of human and divine agency at its very core – and even the authority of Trent was insufficient to finally settle this issue, even within Roman Catholicism.99 In the late sixteenth century, the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina tipped the Tridentine balance toward free will, and argued that God, through a mysterious and conditional “middle knowledge,” actualized the world in ways that did not impinge at all on humans’ freedom to make


A History of Christian Agency

fully free choices. Grace in this model is necessary but does not act alone; salvation is contingent upon God’s knowledge of what humans will freely do in any possible situation. In so arguing, Molinism de-emphasized God’s ordaining sovereignty enough to provoke a vigorous response from Bañez and the Thomists, who insisted on the subordination of human agency to the infallible efficacy of divine grace.100 In seventeenth-century France and the Low Countries, the Augustinian Jansenists (with whom both Racine and Pascal were connected) responded even more emphatically to Molinism, and reaffirmed predestination, the severity of original sin, the irresistibility of grace, and the non-necessity of human cooperation in justification. To its Catholic and especially Jesuit detractors, this smelled vilely of cryptoCalvinism (though Jansenism did not include the perseverance and assurance so important to it), and despite the best efforts of Pascal, Jansenism was condemned by the Church and suppressed by Louis XIV. Even as Roman Catholicism struggled to stabilize its doctrine of agency, an inverted version of that struggle was taking place among Protestants. Around the turn of the century,101 the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius developed serious reservations about several key teachings of Calvinism, and after his death these were articulated by his followers in the 1610 Articles of Remonstrance.102 The Remonstrants, while in substantial concord with Calvinism on human sinfulness and the necessity of grace for salvation, contested most of its agency-neutering conclusions by moderating the thoroughness of the first and the totality of the second. The Remonstrant position was summed up in five articles, paraphrased here. 1 The depravity of sin is very comprehensive, such that humans cannot save themselves from it without grace, but at the same time it does not nullify the ability and responsibility of the human will to respond positively to God. 2 God elects contingently, on the basis of his foreknowledge of who will believe and persevere in faith. Conversely, he will “leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath.” 3 Christ died “for all men and for every man,” offering redemption for all to either embrace or reject individually. 4 Grace is comprehensively essential for salvation, but it is conditional upon acceptance, hence resistible; each human can and will either accept or reject it, and will receive the consequences of that choice. 5 It is not certain that those who embrace salvation with faith will continue to do so. Christ empowers and protects the faithful, but others may neglect or forsake their salvation and thus lose it.

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency


This is a striking mirror image of Jansenism. Where the renegade Catholics sought to counteract an emphasis on human agency that they considered unwarranted and dangerous, the renegade Protestants sought to retroject precisely that emphasis into a Calvinist Protestantism that had largely erased and denied it. Each of the five articles either qualifies or contradicts a central Calvinist tenet, in every case for the sake of asserting a human will that is free enough to accept or reject grace; even more striking than Arminianism’s inversion of Jansenism is its soteriological convergence with mainstream Catholicism (whatever other differentials kept them apart). And it was in response to this that the Synod of Dort, convened in 1618 to refute the agential agenda of Arminianism, formulated the definitive “five points of Calvinism” or TULIP.103 1 Total depravity: the comprehensive corruption of postlapsarian human nature by sin. It does not necessarily mean that humans are as bad as they could possibly be, but rather that no facet of fallen humanity has escaped the effects of sin. One of those effects is the crippling of the will, which renders it unable to accept or indeed want God’s grace without radical precedent (or prevenient) grace to make that possible. 2 Unconditional election: God has decreed (either before or after the Fall, depending on whether one is a supra- or infralapsarian) the sure and unmerited salvation of a certain but unknowable number of humans – and thus also, whether actively or passively, the certain condemnation of the rest. Election proceeds from no cause but the benevolent will of God. 3 Limited atonement: since only a subset of humanity is destined to be saved, Christ suffered and died only for them, and not for everyone. 4 Irresistible grace: those whom God has determined to save are unable to refuse or resist his saving love. The grace bestowed on the elect is necessarily efficacious, and not contingent upon the choice or consent of its recipient. 5 Perseverance of the saints: the truly elect will be sustained by grace all the way to death and glory. Those who fall into apostasy were, unbeknownst to any but God, always reprobate; their belief was an illusion, their damnation certain. Calvinism prevailed at Dort, and the Remonstrants were directed to stop preaching Arminian doctrine, but as we should by now expect, its victory was neither total nor lasting. Within a decade, Arminianism made significant inroads into the court and church of Charles I, and would play an important role in England’s political and religious future. It helped to precipitate the Civil War, both polarizing and curiously realigning


A History of Christian Agency

predestinarians and freewillers,104 and while the essentially Calvinist 39 Articles105 were restored to normative status after the Restoration, the toleration of practical agency remained. The Wesleys would reassert it forcefully in the following century as a critical principle of Methodism, and to this day Protestants differ on the vexed relation of agency and grace.106 In closing, I will offer a few general observations about this remarkably durable debate. The first is that theoretically, the two sides are to a surprising degree mutually exclusive. Strongly Augustinian models of sin and grace are highly intolerant of a lessening of either, such that even innocuous-seeming assertions of human agency are understood as denials of the seriousness of sin and/or the absolute goodness and sovereignty of God. Conversely, even such modest assertions, like the claims initially made by Pelagius, tend to validate those concerns by leading rather easily and quickly to a marginalization, a demotion or rendering optional, of God and his grace, and to increasingly anthropocentric models of soteriology and human existence. The optics of this debate are as a result often somewhat distorting: while the advocates of human agency often come across as reasonable moderates in their resistance to a rigidly absolute theology, their principles have in practice had, in more than one case, an equally radical import in the opposite direction – one that is, whether its proponents intended it or not, potentially at odds with Christianity itself. As a result the question has been inherently polarized from the start, and to a degree that offers little hope of permanent compromise or synthesis. And yet efforts to achieve exactly that theoretically impossible balance have been unremitting, so long as our civilization has found the two competing values – human freedom and transcendent grace – each so desirable and true as to be indispensable. As Bernard of Clairvaux had put it, “take away free will, and there is nothing that needs to be saved; take away grace, and there is nothing to save it,”107 and the history of Christian doctrine is quite centrally a history of persistent efforts to find some viable synthetic middle ground between Augustine and Pelagius. Aquinas perhaps came closest to resolving the contradictions between the two, and many others have made similar efforts, but his harmonious optimism did not last, and did not prevent the cataclysmic splintering of Western Christianity over these issues. Time after time the Pauline/Augustinian model has effectively reasserted itself against Pelagian ethical synergism and vice versa, but neither side has achieved a permanent victory, and indeed only Enlightenment rationalism, which willingly set God aside in its embrace of the human, has defused or escaped this cycle in a lasting way.108 But that phenomenon

Calvin versus anti-Calvinists: Certainty and Contingency


postdates the early modern object of this study. What we see from the apostolic church until then is recurrent theological skirmishes on the same battlefield, with the ghost of Augustine killing and re-killing the undead Pelagius ad infinitum in the cause of a sovereign God. But at the same time, the humanist and ethical values of the zombie heretic are so compelling, so necessary, that they do not go away,109 and thus the history of this conflict is also a history of continuous struggle, of daily accommodation, of practical syntheses that are tricky or impossible in theory.110 These may be incoherent in principle, but they are nonetheless necessary for cultures and individuals that believe, theoretically and practically, in agency both human and divine. Perhaps this is the ultimate soteriological paradox. Perhaps Luther was right in theory that, humans having opened a chasm of sin between themselves and an absolutely sovereign God, there is no middle ground for cooperation or rapprochement between them. We cannot have our cake and eat it too; if sin is radically serious, that chasm can only be bridged by the divine initiative of grace, and if it isn’t, grace is unneeded. But perhaps the heirs of Pelagius are right too that in practice, that is no way to live, as such an either/or binary provides worrisome accounts of both human capacity and divine goodness, and appears to violate basic ethical intuitions on both sides. These struggles, tensions, choices, problems, accommodations, and fumblings-toward are the context and the subject of the literary texts addressed in the remainder of this book.

chapter 2

Will: Marlowe

Two such opposed kings encamp them still In man as well as herbs—grace and rude will.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet 2.2

The will man imposes upon himself; man’s will is his kingdom of heaven . . . [the will] is the god of the modern world. Dedicated to it, we are afraid of opposing doctrines.

Goethe, “Shakespeare und kein Ende!”

Marlowe’s “Will” In a passing moment of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, the titular protagonist offers a moment of incisive self-analysis when he says that “‘will’ and ‘shall’ best fitteth Tamburlaine” (3.3.41).1 In his short list of preferred modals, Tamburlaine provides us with a compact insight, not only into his own character, but into an important element of what makes its creator so extraordinary: Marlowe’s most compelling protagonists embody fantasies of agency, driven radically by their own self-generated wills and their single-minded desire to turn them into action. Tamburlaine, Barabas, and Faustus do not much deal in “could” or “might” or “should” (much less “can’t” or “shouldn’t”); rather, as the confident futurity of “will” and “shall” suggests, they turn wanting, through willing, into doing, regardless of what logistical or moral problems stand in their way. There are always obstacles, of course, limits to be confronted at great risk: lopsided military odds against Tamburlaine, an antisemitic Maltese society against Barabas, Christian prohibitions of black magic against Faustus. More importantly for our purposes, each of these characters wrestles with specifically religious limitations on their capacity to do what they want. For Barabas, whose theological thoughts are relentlessly material – 78


Marlowe’s “Will” What more may heaven do for earthly man Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps, Ripping the bowels of the earth for them, Making the sea their servant, and the winds To drive their substance with successful blasts?

(Jew of Malta, 1.1.105–9)

–the bounds placed on him by religion are primarily social and practical; as a Jew, he suffers restriction and deprivation at the whim of Malta’s rapacious Christian rulers. But in the heat of his first dispossession, after the First Knight rationalizes the seizure in pseudotheological terms by telling him that “’Tis not our fault, but thy inherent sin” (1.2.110) – often read as an antisemitically specific version of original sin, traceable to the cries of the Jews in Matthew 27 – Barabas responds indignantly with a more specifically theological logic. What? Bring you scripture to confirm your wrongs? Preach me not out of my possessions. Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are; But say the tribe that I descended of Were all in general cast away for sin, Shall I be tried by their transgression? The man that dealeth righteously shall live; And which of you can charge me otherwise?


Barabas disputes the knight’s point by adopting its polar opposite, rejecting collectively residual guilt to embrace the rights and protections of individually lived righteousness. In other words, he counters a specious, antisemitic fauxAugustinianism with an equally specious Pelagianism, both in the service of ferociously material ends. Ferneze senses that things have taken an awkward turn, and scolds Barabas (“Sham’st thou not thus to justify thyself[?]”), but also endorses his logic by re-containing it within an explicitly material context: “If thou rely upon thy righteousness, / Be patient, and thy riches will increase” (1.2.122–3). A momentary eruption of theology is safely translated back into the civil and economic terms that Malta understands best. Despite what his opening soliloquy may suggest, however, Barabas’ financial prowess is not his defining trait. Admittedly, he likes his money, and sees it to some degree as a sign of divine favor, but we see so little of his dealings in trade that when he tells us in 2.3.11 that he has already recovered his lost wealth, it comes as something of a surprise – and when he announces, in what appears to be a moment of candor, that “I have wealth enough” (2.3.246), we realize that something bigger is at stake than treasure. Rather, what draws him to action, and us to him, is the boundless energy of his


Will: Marlowe

limitless will to dominate, to continually reshape the world around him and make it a function of his will. To this end, he does not simply pursue wealth for its own sake, or punish only those who, like Abigail, Ithamore, and Ferneze, betray or harm him; he also engages in wanton, superfluous plotting that engulfs Christians and Turks, innocent young men, a brace of corrupt friars, and a conventful of nuns. Barabas’ shark-like insatiability and perpetual motion are indicative of a life lived as continual and radical self-assertion.2 He himself tells us as much early on when he describes himself as “born to better chance / And framed of finer mould than common men” (1.2.219–20), and when he responds to calamity not with despair but with self-affirming defiance of the “partial heavens” and “luckless stars” (1.2.260–1): No, I will live, nor loathe I this my life; And since you leave me in the ocean thus To sink or swim, and put me to my shifts, I’ll rouse my senses and awake myself.


The pleasure of watching Barabas, and of finding ourselves compelled, perhaps against our moral sense, to root for him, is more than the satisfaction of seeing him give other corrupt characters and social values their comeuppance; it is the thrill of following a single, vital, spectacularly solipsistic human will as it defines and entertains itself by remaking the world into its own image. This playworld, in which religion seems little more than a club to beat others with, and (outside of, possibly, Abigail) few if any transcendent values are genuinely vindicated (Ferneze’s hypocritical play-closing providentialism, far from being reassuring, is one of the play’s hollowest and ugliest moments), may seem to be one of cold, entropic Machiavellian contingency, in which capacity and will are all. But it is not, not quite. Thomas Heywood, in a set of prologues and epilogues written for a 1632 revival of the play, focuses almost obsessively on the limitations and failures of the human actor. The actual, latter-day actor playing Barabas, he reports, “only aimed to go, but not outgo” (Stage Ep. 4), and this is an absolute inversion of the character, whose operational mode is always to outgo in the cleverest and most self-gratifying ways possible. This apparent modesty or derogation of Richard Perkins is complicated. It is partly a denial of responsibility, a deferral of blame which declares that our actions and words are not our own: “if aught here offend your ear or sight, / We only act, and speak, what others write” (Court Ep. 5–6). It is partly an effect of the actor’s relative position with regard to a cascading

Marlowe’s “Will”


series of absolutes in the prologues: a play that was “in that [implicitly golden] age thought second unto none” (Court Pro. 4), written by “the best of poets” and performed by the “peerless . . . best of actors” (Stage Pro. 2, 8, 4). Up against the superlative play, playwright, and actor of the golden age, Perkins’ situation seems hopeless; “nor is it his ambition / To exceed, or equal, being of condition / More modest. This is all that he intends, / And that, too, at the urgence of some friends” (Stage Pro. 13–16). One feels bad for poor Richard, who “if none here gainsay it . . . intends to play it” (Stage Pro. 17–18), because “all the ambition that his mind doth swell / Is but to hear from you (by me) ’twas well” (Stage Ep. 7–8). This combination of moves – disavowal of agency, humility before absolutes, appeal to the merciful judgment of a higher power – is interesting, insofar as it suggests a complex of value diametrically opposed to all that Barabas embodies. Heywood’s request that the king and queen “grace” the protagonist (Court Pro. 11) reminds us that virtually all scripted drama is an overdetermined unfolding of action and language, subject to the prior creative control of the playwright and the subsequent receptive judgment of the audience. Inevitably, this qualifies and modulates even the most committed and radical of onstage agencies, creating sometimes-tense dynamics of potential and limitation, of merit and judgment, sin and grace. And this is not simply Heywood’s tacked-on notion. Marlowe himself signals as much up front when he has the Machiavel, the symbol of action unfettered by metaphysics, sum up these dynamics succinctly; after introducing himself and his protégé, he says, “I crave but this: grace him as he deserves” (Prologue 33). In this compactly paradoxical intertwining of the terms and logics of grace and merit, Marlowe sets even the radically secular bustlings of Barabas in a context of theological conflict much deeper than the spiteful maneuverings of nominal Jews and Christians. Something similar could be said about Tamburlaine, who shares with Barabas an unceasing, self-asserting desire to impose his will upon the world, of which his signature activity of military conquest is only one instantiation. Unlike Barabas, though, whose direct interest in religion is limited to its role as a material marker of earthly difference, and who is quite uninterested in the transcendent or the theological, Tamburlaine talks frequently about the divine and his relation to it; in his perverse and aggressive way, he has a surprisingly robust theological life that often takes the form of imagining himself in competition or conflict with, or even ascendency over, the divine. While the Prologue to Part I famously describes him as “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms,” the gods and heavens too are targets of his threats and domination.


Will: Marlowe . . . we will triumph over all the world. I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about, And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.


Our quivering lances shaking in the air And bullets like Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts Enrolled in flames and fiery smouldering mists Shall threat the gods more than Cyclopian wars; And with our sun-bright armour as we march We’ll chase the stars from heaven, and dim their eyes That stand and muse at our admired arms.


. . . were Egypt Jove’s own land, Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.


. . . my customs are as peremptory As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.


The god of war resigns his room to me, Meaning to make me general of the world. Jove, viewing me in arms, looks pale and wan, Fearing my power should pull him from his throne. Where’er I come the Fatal Sisters sweat, And grisly Death, by running to and fro, To do their ceaseless homage to my sword . . .


It is an astonishing set of images and claims: humans, stars and planets, the very gods cringing before the omnipotent Tamburlaine, whose will and power overwhelm those of gods, fate, fortune, and death itself. The rhetoric continues in Part 2, where he again threatens war on Jove and the Fates for taking away his beloved Zenocrate (2.4.96–108), and for giving him his effete son Calyphas (4.1.110–30). But the facts of these cases obviously call his most transcendently superlative claims into question, and demonstrate his subjection to some sort of higher powers, and he seems implicitly to realize this. Though Theridamas describes him ecstatically in 3.4 as “a man greater than Mahomet” and more majestic than Jove, Tamburlaine dials back a bit toward the end of 4.1, where he describes himself as the “scourge of God” who does heaven’s bidding, “crowned and invested by the hand of Jove” (4.1.153, 4.1.150). His eventual rejection of Mahomet and his “foolish laws” (5.1.195) appears to derive from disgust at the prophet’s powerlessness; Tamburlaine seeks to circumvent prophetic mediation and have a more direct relationship with the wrathful, authorizing God that he admires and serves. But his instinctive response to the

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


sudden distemper that follows is to revert once more to theomachy: “Come let us march against the powers of heaven / And set black streamers in the firmament / To signify the slaughter of the gods” (5.3.48–50). He soon realizes, however, that “in vain I strive and rail against those powers / That mean t’invest me in a higher throne” (5.3.120–1), and recommends to the heartbroken Amyras “that magnanimity / That nobly must admit necessity” (5.3.200–1); even “Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, must die” (5.3.248). In the end, even this astoundingly agential character defers to death, necessity, and divine will. To recognize this is not to reclaim Marlowe for Christian orthodoxy, but simply to understand that even he could scarcely conceive of his characters’ astonishing assertions of self and denials of subordination entirely outside of theology3 – nor could he, in the end, sustain the exhilarating fantasies of limitless, unconstrained will that animated them.

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice Near the end of Doctor Faustus, an exultant Mephistopheles tells Faustus that “Twas I that, when thou wert i’the way to heaven, / Dammed up thy passage. When thou took’st the book / To view the Scriptures, then I turned the leaves / And led thine eye” (5.2.98–101).4 In this he refers us back to a famous passage from the play’s first scene, in which Faustus considers whether “divinity is best,” decides (based on sloppy Biblereading) that it is hopelessly determinist, and turns decisively to magic as his path to fulfillment. But Mephistopheles’ assertion that he in fact controlled Faustus’ reading and, therefore, his choosing has contributed to a widespread critical assertion that Faustus is essentially a puppet, and that the central tragedy of the play is, therefore, the plight of the human in a determinist cosmos presided over by the ruthless God of John Calvin.5 Poor Faustus’ fate is never really in his hands; if Calvin was right, he has been damned since before he was born, and what we see unfold in the play is the inevitable progress of that doom. In a pair of influential readings, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield see the play as interrogative and subversively irresolute in ways that ultimately reveal the Protestant God to be a monstrously unethical tyrant, and Christian theology an ideological mechanism for the constitution and destruction of the subject. As Sinfield puts it, “there are two traps in the play. One is set by God for Dr. Faustus; the other is set by Marlowe, for God.”6 Stachniewski finds even Sinfield too wishy-washy, and declares the play to be “accurately dramatized Calvinist dogma.”7 Numerous other critics


Will: Marlowe

have, less contentiously but in the same spirit of sympathy for a doomed Faustus, read the play as more simply a critique of Calvinist determinism. “Is Faustus tragically damned because God has predetermined this fate, or because he thinks God has predetermined it?” Gillian Woods asked in 2013. “Either way, the tragedy is damningly bound up with Calvinist problems.”8 Such readings typically ask us to overlook a great deal. To begin with, they often cite the Mephistophelian lines with which I began as prime evidence, but many do not explain the implications of, and some do not even note, the fact that those lines appear only in the more-claustrophobic 1616 B-text, not the A-text of 1604.9 That later text also obviates one of the perennial critical questions regarding the play – is it ever too late for Faustus to repent? If so, when is that point reached? – by having the Good Angel quite ominously start talking about repentance in the past tense and saying things like “O, thou hast lost celestial happiness” (B5.2.106). The B-text, in contrast to A, both subjects Faustus to more supernatural manipulation, and makes it quite clear toward the end that heaven is no longer an option for him. While Leah Marcus has, on other evidence, suggested that B is more mild and “Arminian” or “latitudinarian Anglican” than A,10 these instances demonstrate that B in fact systematically closes off options, interpretive and soteriological, for Faustus and readers alike. He is not allowed to have performed his own Bible-reading, and its vital importance and eternal consequences are less a result of his own will or agency than an effect of supernatural interference; and we are told that, and roughly when, it is too late for Faustus to repent, thus sticking us with an overdetermined conclusion and robbing his final scene of much of its richness and possibility. I make this point simply to observe that anti-Calvinist readings that rely on B-only evidence have already rigged the game in their favor by using the version they most object to. In so doing, paradoxically, in the process of reading the play as a critique of Calvinist determinism, some critics become analogues of the Calvinist God they so dislike in precisely those aspects they find most repugnant: through acts of arbitrary preference, they reduce the agency of character and readers alike, and decree before Faustus’ death his exclusion from the possibility of grace.11 To a considerable degree, then, critics who propound anti-Calvinist readings of the play tend very often not only to assume Calvinism as its subject, logic, and target – this is distinct, of course, from simply recognizing that Calvinism was an important part of the late-Elizabethan context in which the play was created – but to replicate it in their own criticism.

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


To persuasively read Doctor Faustus as a direct critique of the strong soteriological determinism associated with Calvinist double predestination, however, one would need to demonstrate in it an immutable and rigorously external system of causation, in which the protagonist’s fate was foreordained and his own actions irrelevant to it. Indeed, one would need to demonstrate that human agency does not exist, soteriologically speaking, and that all choices between actions and their alternatives are either futile or illusory. Arguments that see Calvinism or determinism as being what the play is centrally “about,” but do not provide such demonstrations, do so only by assuming it12 – and this usually entails the functional assumption that the play’s ending was immutably predetermined, that nothing Faustus could have said or done could have averted it, that he is dragged off to hell as, in effect, a helpless victim of a grimly satisfied God who set the whole thing up before the foundation of the world.13 I will argue that such arguments are petere principium, and unsustainable by either version of the play. By assuming and enacting the very sort of causal system they seek to attack without effectively demonstrating its existence in the text, they present a case that is fundamentally contradictory and incoherent, with arbitrarily determinist critics condemning an arbitrarily determinist God who cannot be found in the play. Such readings must therefore look elsewhere to justify themselves, and this is typically done with a nod to presumed theological consensus among the establishment and/or the play’s audience. Sinfield, for example, repeatedly invokes things like “Elizabethan orthodoxy,” “protestant thought,” “an Elizabethan,” as if these were unproblematically continuous and homogeneous, but as much recent scholarship and my preceding chapter have shown, they were not; even granting the generally moderateCalvinist nature of the Elizabethan Church of England, we must recognize that early modern theological differences provide ample evidence of the continuing vitality of tensions as old as Christianity. Furthermore, even within mainstream Protestantism, and indeed within Calvinism itself, there were deep tensions between the theoretical and practical imperatives of theology and pastoral teaching. Even those who taught thoroughly determinist versions of divine sovereignty rarely failed to also exhort their flocks to do things – believe, strive, obey, submit, serve – whether or not that collation made strict sense. In the absence of a properly tyrannical God within the play, then, or a stable and specific theological consensus outside it through which it would be reliably interpreted, it is difficult to see how Doctor Faustus is in any clear sense directly “about” issues of Calvinist determinism.14


Will: Marlowe

An interesting variation on this question was proposed decades ago by Pauline Honderich, who argued that Faustus essentially damns himself because his belief in the “angry and revengeful God of Calvinism”15 paralyzes him and prevents him from embracing forgiveness, an option embodied by the Old Man (of the B-text, though she does not note this) as a representative of a more moderate Anglican option. The problem, in other words, is not that Calvinism is true, but that Faustus believes in it, and this opens up a potentially more plausible critical space, but Honderich forecloses much of that space by arguing that this is a tragedy “for which Calvinism is responsible” (8) in a way resembling “the ineluctable fatality of Greek tragedy” (2). Though she allows that the play’s Calvinism is “merely implicit” (6), she refers freely and broadly to the “Calvinist attitude” of both protagonist and play (10) but without effectively demonstrating either, because she functionally equates Calvinism simply with a terrifying and remorselessly damning God, and scarcely mentions the positive grace that is so central to the entire Pauline tradition. This distorted and relentlessly graceless notion of Calvinism is, as I have argued it is in later criticism, imposed upon the text rather than found in it, and it cripples Honderich’s rather-interesting argument.16 It means that none of her evidence for the play’s Calvinism or anti-Calvinism can actually demonstrate it, and I will argue that it can’t anyway because this play is only “about” Calvinism – which was of course an important element in Marlowe’s intellectual context, but not necessarily by virtue of that the play’s subject or target – insofar as it assumes that it is not the case. I also believe that Honderich misunderstands the play when she argues that the effect of Faustus’ Calvinist conviction that he is “irredeemably wicked and predestined to damnation is to deprive [him] of all will and energy” (10). Precisely the opposite is true: that conviction, to the degree that he actually has it (I will argue that it is largely manufactured), is itself a tremendous act of will, and generates a great deal of energy. There are, of course, allusions to remorseless condemnation in Doctor Faustus, but in what follows I will demonstrate that these are highly problematic in both texts of the play. My argument will begin with, and spend the bulk of its time on, the A-text, which I have suggested is the more focused, coherent, and interestingly open of the two, and then return to B to see if any of its additions or alterations substantially alter my case. My central contention will be that virtually all of the evidence in the play that is typically taken to indicate determinism is highly suspect. When this is understood, it becomes quite clear that Marlowe is not very interested in the question of whether agential human will exists; he actually barely

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regards that as a question at all; the play is entirely predicated on the soteriological efficacy of human choice. What he is intensely interested in are the implications of that will and how it is used. Back, then, to that opening scene and its great monologue. Far from attempting to “convince himself of the worth of several professions,”17 as Dollimore would have it, Faustus sets out to “level at the end of every art” (1.1.4) – to discern not only the purpose but the final payoff of different fields of study. This is a rhetorical as well as an analytical exercise, but in a way precisely opposite to what Dollimore suggests: Faustus is actually convincing himself of the radical unsatisfactoriness of each field, and we can tell this from what triggers his rejection of each. Logic provides “no greater miracle” (9) than skillful disputation. Medicine, though he hopes it will “eternize” him (15), does not give him the power to “make men to live eternally / Or, being dead, raise them to life again” (19–20), leaving him “still but Faustus, and a man” (18). Law focuses on “external trash,” leading Faustus to dismiss it as “[t]oo servile and illiberal for me” (35–6); the Oxford English Dictionary uses these lines to exemplify its leading definition of illiberal, which is “not befitting or of the nature of a free man.” These taken together suggest that Faustus values freedom, and desires a radical version of it: a freedom from the constraints of being human. He wants the miraculous powers over death and time that Christianity has always attributed exclusively to the divine. But Christianity also offers access to those transcendences of mortality for humans by way of its promises of eternal glorified life for those under its covenant, so it is unsurprising that Faustus’ meditations take him finally to divinity. Jerome’s Bible, Faustus; view it well. Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium, etc. The reward of sin is death. That’s hard. Si peccasse negamus, fallimur Et nulla est in nobis veritas. If we say that we have no sin, We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why then belike we must sin, And so consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera, What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!

(1.1. 38–50)

Faustus is clearly not trying to “convince himself of the worth of” divinity here. Indeed, it has long been understood that both his reading and his


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reasoning in this passage are terribly defective. Rozett observes that this was “first noted by Helen Gardner,” in 1948,18 but surely this is only critically true: surely, sizable majorities of the play’s original audiences would have immediately recognized both the scriptural citations and hollow silence of their omitted conclusions. Perhaps the twentieth century was just the first in which people needed this explained to them. At any rate, to rehearse what is well known, Faustus quotes two biblical passages here, but in each case he omits a second half that not only counterbalances but entirely overrides the first. • Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death; [but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.]” • I John 1:8–9 – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.]” He then cobbles these two fragments together into a syllogism that he extends to an unwarranted conclusion of “everlasting death” of inescapable necessity (“must”) for a “we” that seems to refer collectively to all of humanity. (It should hardly need to be pointed out that this, sans grace, is not Calvinism or any other kind of Protestant or Pauline theology, but a desperate caricature thereof.) What are we to make of this? Are we to believe that Faustus, the internationally famous theologian, had never read the ensuing passages, or had forgotten their payoffs?19 This is deeply implausible, even if, as in B, there has been some demonic page-turning in one instance. Are we to believe that Faustus, the master logician, was unaware of the fallacies and errors in his own reasoning? Equally unlikely. Dollimore sees him as exhibiting here “an excess of life breaking repressive bounds . . . an insecurity verging on despair,” and registering “a sense of humankind as miscreated”; Sanders calls it “a revolt for life,” a “way of escaping from the gloomy pessimism of this doomed view of human existence.”20 Both critics fail to adequately recognize that he, like them, has manufactured the “gloomy pessimism” by determinedly selective reading and specious reasoning;21 what Marlowe clearly wrote as a distorted theological caricature, some critics take to be straight-up Calvinism.22 Both they and Faustus are rebelling against something that does not exist in the play, and that exists outside of it as part of a theological ferment far more complex and interesting than they are inclined to allow.23 Were Faustus (among others) not acting out what appears to be a predetermined rejection of Christianity, in fact, he might have noticed that those suppressed counterstatements do more than indicate a way out

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of doom (though that is their most important function); they also demonstrate that even at Marlowe’s own moment, there was no theological consensus of despair or passivity. The conjunctive “but” in the Romans verse indicates the possibility of total negation of the preceding statement by way of absolute divine gift, an unearned, one-way bestowal of grace. (Faustus’ truncation suggests that he understands the logic of payment or reward, but not that of radical gift.) In contrast, the verse from I John operates not by conjunction and reversal but by a reciprocating grace that is conditional (“if”) upon the confession of, and presumably also repentance for, one’s sins, in a process that is at least somewhat dependent upon human initiative and action (even if condensed into a point of choice, and enabled by the Holy Spirit). So the two verses, properly understood, offer not just a way out, but two: salvation-as-pure-gift in a Calvinist mode, and salvation-as-response-to-choice in a more Catholic or proto-Arminian mode. The fact that Faustus suppresses both indicates that he is uninterested in theological subtleties, or either option, or indeed any kind of religious way out, because any Christian option would require him to both recognize and endorse precisely the limits he finds so unacceptable in this speech. Either model involves something being done to him – giving, forgiving, cleansing – by a transcendent divine agent whose existence and action defines the radically limited capacities of the human. What Faustus wants is not just power, but release from the constraints put upon him by humanity and divinity alike. Only by repudiating both, he thinks, and acquiring a radically different kind of agency, will he be able to transcend that boundary and achieve the limitless agency of a god. O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan! . . . his dominion that exceeds in this Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man. A sound magician is a mighty god. Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity.

(1.1.55–7, 1.1.62–5)

In these lines some hear the ecstatic aspirations of the humanist Renaissance; others hear damnable blasphemy against the almighty God; some hear both. All of these readings are legitimate construals of, and responses to, the text. What we do not hear, though, is anything like despair or panic, nor did we hear it in the preceding discussion of theology, which ended not with terror or dejection but with contemptuous dismissal. Faustus is clearing away obstacles to give fullest scope to his powers of


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will, choice, and action, but this can only be done by rejecting Christianity, and he does this by deliberately misconstruing it as “unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile” (1.1.111) – as, in effect, Calvinism without grace. In this, I have suggested, he has many critical disciples. It is one of the great ironies of Doctor Faustus that virtually all of its clearest enunciations of fatalist determinism come from the mouths of demons and a sorcerer, and since free will would seem more in these parties’ interest, it may be worth asking why this is so. Faustus exhorts the terrified Mephistopheles to “learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude, / and scorn those joys thou never shalt possess” (1.3.87–8). At the beginning of the second act, after the initial negotiations but before the contract has been drawn, he muses to himself, Now, Faustus, must thou needs be damned, And canst thou not be saved. What boots it then to think of God or heaven? Away with such vain fancies and despair! Despair in God and trust in Beelzebub.

Bevington and Rasmussen note that both A1 and B1 end the second line with a question mark, but they, like most editors, emend that to a period, presumably on the principle that the conclusive “then” of the third line requires a firm antecedent principle to be sequacious. We find almost immediately, however, that things are actually not so settled: Faustus still needs to talk himself out of these “vain fancies” and into despair (“Now go not backward. No, Faustus, be resolute. / Why waverest thou?”), and he does this by insisting to himself that God “loves thee not” (2.1.10). He pursues the full power of choice by persuading himself that he has none, that grace is not available to him, because turning to God would entail the acceptance of a set of propositions that would prevent him from doing what he wants; for this reason, Faustus may be less afraid of damnation than he is of grace. Even after his “unwilling” blood congeals, and writing appears on his arm, he continues to deny the option of repentance and indeed the possibility of grace: “Homo, fuge! Whither should I fly? / If unto God, he’ll throw thee down to hell” (2.1.77–8). With his options so selfconstrued, jumping into hell on his own terms is preferable to being thrown. “Why shouldst thou not? Is not thy soul thine own?” (2.1.68), he asks rhetorically, but the implied assertion behind it is crucial: my soul is my own, and I can choose to barter it away if I want to. Once the bargain has been made official, and only thereupon, Mephistopheles seems to become a kind of perverse determinist too,

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


affirming that Faustus shall be damned “of necessity” (2.1.133). A moment of Faustian seller’s remorse comes to nothing: though he says “I repent” (2.3.1), it quickly becomes clear that this is more about regret and blaming someone else than about begging forgiveness for one’s own actions. Ten lines later, he speaks of repentance as something yet undone – “I will renounce this magic and repent” – and this is followed by a remarkable exchange. Good Angel. Faustus, repent yet, God will pity thee. Evil Angel. Thou art a spirit. God cannot pity thee. Faustus. Who buzzeth in my ears I am a spirit? Be I a devil, yet God may pity me; Ay, God will pity me if I repent. Evil Angel. Ay, but Faustus never shall repent. Faustus. My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent. Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears: “Faustus, thou art damned!”


An array of soteriological possibilities swirls dizzyingly here: God will pity ≫ cannot pity ≫ may pity ≫ will pity me if I repent ≫ never shall repent ≫ I cannot repent ≫ [I am] damned. An assurance of grace is followed by a denial, then a possibility, then a conditional assurance; then a command, a failure, and despair. Faustus then reminds himself that pleasure conquers despair, and resolves to never repent. Whether this is a tragic moment of tantalizingly lost opportunity or an act of heroic resolve, we will return to later; what I would like to note clearly here is simply that the character we conventionally should trust does not counsel despair or preach reprobation, but rather holds the door of salvation firmly open, contract and all. It is Faustus and the Evil Angel that insist that it is unopenably closed. The passage thus contains contradictory suggestions that Faustus does, or doesn’t, or may, have the capacity to remedy his situation by turning to God.24 But this multivocality is not indeterminacy; these voices sort quite readily, and in ways that are consistent throughout the A-text. In that very scene, after Mephistopheles commands Faustus to “think on hell . . . for thou art damned” (2.3.72), the Good Angel assures him again that it is “never too late, if Faustus can25 repent . . . / Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin” (2.3.79, 2.3.81). Meanwhile, the Evil Angel returns to insist that it is “Too late . . . / If thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces” (2.3.78, 2.3.80), and Lucifer himself shows up to press his claim that “Christ cannot save thy soul, for he is just. / There’s none but I have interest in the same” (2.3.84–5). Once again, the heavenly character affirms Faustus’ soteriological capacity and freedom to choose, while the demonic characters (and Faustus himself, off


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and on) argue that the case is closed. But even in this they are not Calvinists, tempting as it may be to see things so. While they are advancing absolute claims on Faustus’ fate, nowhere and never do they do so in terms of divine foreordination or eternally foregone conclusion; they do so in terms of proprietorship and contract law.26 This legal strategy is founded on the fact that Faustus has freely, in writing, in blood, given his soul to Lucifer, and has also repeatedly spit in the face of the other party that wanted it. We know that this document is important to both parties to the contract: Mephistopheles tells Faustus that “that security craves great Lucifer” (2.1.36), and Faustus willingly cuts his arm to “with my proper blood / Assure my soul to be great Lucifer’s” (2.1.54–5). All future claims of damnation devolve, not from the perverse glee of an inscrutable God who delights in destroying his creatures, nor from the decree of the God that Calvin and his followers actually believed in, but from this pact and the ownership it confers from Faustus to Lucifer. This is clear in Mephistopheles’ explanation of why Faustus is damned “of necessity”: not because of eternal decree, but because “here’s the scroll / Wherein thou hast given thy soul to Lucifer” (2.1.133–4). In fact, contrary to the malevolent and “frighteningly mysterious” deity discerned by Robert Hunter27 and others, we might well see the God implied in this play as benevolent and entirely scrutable. If we take the Good Angel and the Old Man as divine emissaries, and truthful – and it seems not only reasonable to do so, but perverse not to (this is not Waiting for Godot) – then this is a God who makes his redemptive desires, and Faustus’ good options, insistently and reiteratively known. In the final act, the Old Man attempts to “guide [Faustus’] steps unto the way of life, / By which sweet path thou mayst attain the goal / That shall conduct thee to celestial rest!” (5.1.37–9), and assures him that “I see an angel hovers o’er thy head, / And with a vial full of precious grace / Offers to pour the same into thy soul. / Then call for mercy and avoid despair” (5.1.54–7). One might, I suppose, choose to regard these characters, or the God behind them, as the cruelest and most loathsome sort of taunters imaginable, but the text gives us no reason whatsoever to do so; on the contrary, it gives us every reason to take them and their offers as real, serious, and true. If we take the latter, correct course, we can discern a moral universe in which grace is still available to Faustus, regardless of what a rout of devils might be telling him. Indeed, those emissaries are themselves means of prevenient grace, guiding and calling (but not forcing) Faustus to the “way of life,” and salvation is something he “mayst attain” by choosing to embrace God’s proffered mercy. This simply affirms what the protagonist’s wavering and self-persuading has indicated all along: Doctor Faustus is not a tragedy of fate, but of choice.

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


Though this is not an entirely new insight – Paul Kocher in 1946 correctly declared “untenable any theory that Faustus’ fall is predetermined in a Calvinistic sense”28 – it has, as I have argued, become obscured in recent criticism to the point of needing reassertion. In a seminal 1976 article, Sara Munson Deats performed a painstaking analysis of Marlowe’s modifications of the English Faustbook, and concluded that Marlowe “consistently alters his source to highlight Faustus’ own responsibility for his damnation.”29 He endows his protagonist with “willful self-deceit” (7) from the play’s start. He reverses the English Faustbook roles in 1.3 by making Mephistopheles into a fearful and reluctant salesman, and Faustus into the aggressive devil’s advocate who ignores diabolically good advice. He creates the Good and Evil angels, which “remind us constantly of the ubiquity of choice and of Faustus’ personal onus,” and “refute the magician’s predestination to damnation by a malevolent Deity” (12). He multiplies and amplifies the additional supernatural signs (coagulation, epidermal inscriptions, firmamental ensanguination) that might point Faustus in the right direction. Deats concludes that “by adapting Morality conventions and modifying dramatic structure, character, and action, Marlowe affirms the concepts of volition and responsibility which form the moral fulcrum of both play and source” (14). She intends this, along with a negative reading of Faustus’ character and actions, primarily as a refutation of the heroic or “Satanic” reading exemplified by Ellis-Fermor and Levin, but the more conclusive consequence of her essay is what she so persuasively demonstrates about agency: that, for better or worse, Faustus exercises free will and choice in his actions. Indeed, the fundamental question of agency, and the recognition that Faustus has it, does not affiliate exclusively with either the heroic or the cautionary-tale reading of the play, but can lend itself to both. What it does exclude is the kind of determinist reading that seeks to execrate a cosmic order, and a system of belief, in which his fate bears no relation to his choices and actions. One consequence of recognizing this is that we can see the play as more immediately ethical, with right and wrong not incurable ontological conditions but categories with both transcendent and enacted meaningfulness. Another is consequentiality itself, in a play that everywhere insists (even though some characters deny it) that those enacted choices are metaphysically framed, and have results. Faustus is no tragic puppet; he does what he wants, and earns the consequences. It is true that he is peculiarly vulnerable to the temptations of ambition, and to threats of bodily harm, but these promptings are by no means all that is available to him; he has in his aspiration deliberately turned away from their heavenly counterparts that have been pressed on him throughout the


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play. Even the generally benevolent Old Man finally calls him “accursed Faustus, miserable man, / That from thy soul exclud’st the grace of heaven / And fliest the throne of His tribunal seat” (A5.1.111–13), and this diagnosis is quite accurate. God has not excluded him; he has excluded God. Even this, though, is not a final condemnation. It is directly a lament for a man who has repeatedly ignored offers of grace, has yet again reaffirmed his choice of self and Lucifer over God, and who has just walked offstage to copulate with the demonic Helen, but it does not in its present-tense description conclusively declare any of those acts absolutely irreversible. The B-text, in contrast, soon after this point makes a decisive pronouncement that Faustus “hast lost celestial happiness” (5.2.111), thus establishing (despite the Old Man’s generous recent assessment of his “amiable soul” [5.1.40]) that the game is now over, and he irretrievably damned. This greatly reduces the interest of the remainder of the play by taking away at last the power of soteriological choice that underlay the tragedy’s power all along.30 But the A-text never closes the door like this. As a result, its great final scene is able to unfold with full tragic intensity. It is also, unsurprisingly, and like the rest of the play, much more interesting when we see a protagonist with real options, making real choices. Understanding the centrality of will in Doctor Faustus means that the possibility of grace may well linger until the very end of the A-text, and that Faustus may well have the option of repentance until the devils “exeunt with him.” He himself testifies against this, of course: when the second scholar reminds him that “God’s mercies are infinite,” he replies, “But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned. The serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus” (5.2.14–16). This assertion that his crimes are more unforgiveable and thus greater than those of the lapsarian serpent, which is traditionally associated with Satan himself, is remarkably hyperbolic. Faustus claims that he, and he only, is beyond redemption, but on what basis could he possibly believe it? Possibly, if Greg was right, this is post-coital regret of the first order after his frolic with Helen; possibly sin, habit, guilt, or repeated devilish badgering have dimmed his assessment of his own prospects; possibly he takes a perverse pride in the magnitude of his transgression. But the more important point is that the A-text has given us no trustworthy indication, even at this very late point, that he is right. When his friends encourage him to look up to heaven and call on God for a share of infinite mercy, he does not even try; instead, he says he would like to, but can’t, and it would be pointless anyway because of his epic offenses and achievements.

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And what wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, all the world, for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself – heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy – and must remain in hell for ever . . . God forbade it indeed, but Faustus hath done it. (5.2.21–5, 5.2.39)

After his prior exaggeration, it is not hard to hear – in the swelling from one’s own wonders to Germany to the whole world to resolute renunciation of heaven and defiance of God – a note of pride here, the transgressive exultation of someone who has sold his soul for rock and roll. This is interesting enough, and provides plenty of fodder for both the humanist-hero and the lost-in-sinful-pride readings, but there is something even more arresting going on here. “I writ them a bill with mine own blood,” Faustus informs his friends. “The date is expired, the time will come, and he will fetch me” (5.2.41–3). Maybe this is not braggadocio or panic, but sober contractual obligation. His first response to the Old Man’s exhortation to grace in the preceding scene has prepared us for this reading. Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done? Damned art thou, Faustus, damned! Despair and die! Hell calls for right, and with a roaring voice Says, ‘Faustus, come! Thine hour is come.’ And Faustus will come to do thee right.


In his echo (to himself) of God’s affronted questioning of the just-fallen Adam and Eve, Faustus plays the roles of both betrayed deity and guilty culprit. The following line recapitulates God’s judgment on the pair, but once again Faustus alludes selectively and omits its crucial corollaries of grace and hope, as in Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between thee [the serpent] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel”). And these lines also give us a clue about why he does this: because to do otherwise would violate the legal justice of “right.” This is closely linked to the question of repentance – something that Faustus thinks and talks about a great deal, but never clearly does. He knows from the start, and indeed well before the start, that this is his way to heaven, and its prior necessity for God’s forgiveness and saving grace is repeatedly stressed in the play. But this apparently simple act is, for him, replete with problems. One is that, as I suggested earlier, repenting would in this case effectively acknowledge the claims of a radically superior being, and thus the repenter’s own limitations and subordinate status. It would be an admission that human choices and actions are not just practically framed by conditions


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of possibility, but morally bound by metaphysical absolutes. It would, like all good apologies, need to be a regretful confession of wrongdoing, and a humble submission to the forgiving grace of the offended party. (Most people I know do not regard things like “I’m sorry that you took offense” or “don’t be mad” as substantive apologies that warrant meaningful forgiveness.) It would also be an affirmation that the proper role of the will is not simply to abet desire, but also to limit and control its negative forms; this is all to say that it would entail a radically contrite taking of responsibility of a sort that we do not see in the play. Each and all of these implications would effectively undo everything that drove Faustus to transgress in the first place, so his resistance is understandable – especially if what drives him to even consider repenting is not sorrow or contrition. Genuine repentance, one might say, is characterized not by verbal formulae or ritual action31 or desired ends, but by moral volition: it requires the sincerity of one who wants forgiveness for his actions because they were wrong. The Old Man calls for “tears falling from repentant heaviness / Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness / The stench whereof corrupts the inward soul / With such flagitious crimes of heinous sins / As no commiseration may expel / But mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet” (A5.1.41–6). But Faustus does not want to repent in this sense. At no point does he convey any sense that he regrets having wronged God because it was wrong; rather, what he repeatedly articulates is simply fear of consequences or a desire to get out of trouble. He has indeed said “I do repent,” but immediately tipped his motivational hand by following it with “What shall I do to shun the snares of death?” (5.1.64, 5.1.66). He may want to repent, or want to want to repent, in what modern philosophers would call a conflict between first-order and second-order desires,32 and Sidney described as the disjunction of an “erected wit” and an “infected will,” and Paul and Augustine diagnosed as a sin-corrupted will upon which unaided moral reason has limited purchase. But wanting to want to repent is not equivalent to repenting, and the fact that Faustus not only seeks and signs but sticks to his contract indicates quite clearly that what he really wants is to do what he wants. This, however, while it can explain much of the play, cannot quite fully account for the play’s final scene. Here he has reached the end of the line, and he knows it. He has gotten to unconstrainedly turn will and desire into action for twenty-four years, and now the bill for his superhuman agency has come due. But while in his rising panic he does and says things that kind of resemble contrition – asking for more time for yet another prospective but unactualized repentance, calling on Christ and his blood

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for help, looking for hiding places or evaporative routes to heaven, hoping against hope that there’s a purgatorial option, blaming the stars and his parents and his demon associates and himself, offering up his books – nowhere does he sorrowfully acknowledge the wrongness of his acts, submit to God, and beg for forgiveness he knows he does not deserve.33 He has been exhorted to such a profession, and has considered it, throughout the play; presumably it would, if sincerely made, satisfy the God construed by almost any version of Christianity. Why does he not make things really right with God by truly repenting, and avoid endless eternities of pain? This is an important question for which we have only a limited number of explanatory options. One, admittedly, might be that the play’s God had decided before the foundation of the world to not give Faustus the prevenient grace he would need to willingly avail himself of full grace. This view has been the main polemical target of this essay, so suffice it to say that I think that such a God cannot be found in the text, and can only be imposed on it by distorting acts of interpretive fiat. Another is Honderich’s more nuanced and plausible contention that Faustus has simply, but catastrophically, convinced himself that this is the case. I have already detailed what I think are the missteps of that argument, including her claim that his conviction drains him of “all will and energy”; the play’s final act (after an admittedly, and notoriously, slack middle) is not lacking in will or energy. One might put that magnificent energy in the service of the heroic reading and see the play’s great final soliloquy as itself a colossal act of will, and Faustus as a humanist martyr who refuses to shortchange human possibility by knuckling under to some notional God and his bullying expectations. But the terrified bargaining of his final moments, along with the trivial midplay payoffs of his bargain that make a mockery of his grand initial aspirations, undercuts that argument. Or maybe, as the B-text Old Man warns, sin has grown by custom into nature, and Faustus pridefully either thinks himself unforgivable or doesn’t care. It seems quite clear, though, between his terror and his pleas for mercy, that he does indeed care; and while the unforgivability argument is more difficult to falsify, it is true that as late as A5.2.100 Faustus is telling himself – mistakenly, as it turns out, though for contingent rather than absolute reasons – that Christ’s “blood hath ransomed me.” So then what motivates his non-repentance? We should perhaps not underestimate the significance of hell’s contractual “right” to Faustus’ soul, or his determination to do “right.” That contract is, after all, arguably his greatest achievement: it is his central act of will and self-assertion, pursued


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and secured at enormous cost, and it is just possible that his final “failure” to repent is itself an act of deliberate choice to see his side of it through. He has received and enjoyed his contractual benefits, so to then escape through a back door would be arguably immoral.34 This reading makes better sense of Faustus’ repeated self-reminders to “be resolute” in moments where not being resolute might result in his salvation; it may make us reconsider whether his moments of re-submission to Lucifer emerge from cowardice or an ethical sense of integrity and contractual obligation. If one is persuaded by this, his final scene then reads very differently, as a perversely successful resistance of the temptation of grace. Perhaps, though I have noted that this play is not Waiting for Godot, Faustus has, like Didi and Gogo, kept his appointment, and like Marlowe’s almost-namesake in Heart of Darkness has been loyal to the nightmare of his choice. He has done that, I think, though I’m not fully persuaded by this version of the heroic reading. It is, for instance, difficult to square with all the means of escape he fantasizes about in his final monologue, and with his last-second “Come not, Lucifer!” (5.2.122), which are not suggestive of someone willingly paying up on a debt because it’s the right thing to do. But it does offer us at least two things that are worth thinking about. First, it proposes a potential alternate ethical system – upholding one’s freely made commitments, paying one’s debts, abiding by one’s word – that to my mind is far more specific and compelling than those adduced by Sinfield, which more or less amount to people being nice to each other. Second, and more important, it underscores the centrality of the issue of willed choice, of the capacity of an autonomous subject to make decisions of everlasting import. The logic of the contract is the logic of law, and law in its normal function presupposes the capacity for deliberately willed and freely chosen actions for which one can be held responsible; this is what makes possible the symmetry of justice. The logic of grace, in contrast, overrides that autonomy with the radical asymmetry of just debts and penalties cancelled or paid by an arbitrarily benevolent other party who, unlike us, can afford them. This overriding applies even in cases where grace has required genuine choice of an Erasmian or Arminian sort to take effect, because it still requires the condemned party to acknowledge that it cannot pay its own debt in a satisfactory way without divine aid. The sinful subject must be recognized and effaced by itself, and its autonomy deeply compromised if not denied, for grace to work. This Faustus will not do. At the outset of the play, he tactically asserted a cartoonishly doomed choicelessness (erroneously taken for Calvinism) in order to reject it and thus open up new modes and horizons of agency for

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


himself. He has in the interim repeatedly turned away from more moderately agential opportunities to simply repent and choose to submit to God. Now, at play’s end, having turned repeatedly away from offers and exhortations of grace, he ironically replicates and affirms these choices in a supreme act of self-destructive agency. He does not go to hell enthusiastically, but he does in a sense do so voluntarily; he has done God wrong, but as he promised in 5.1.52, he will do Lucifer right. He will, one last time, choose autonomy over salvation. In begging God for mercy but not forgiveness, Faustus either fails or decisively refuses to avail himself of the grace that the A-text, and his own temptations, have insisted upon all along. In his terror, he assesses some blame: Curst be the parents that engendered me! No, Faustus, curse thyself. Curse Lucifer, That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.


Kristin Poole rather unproductively describes this tendency to blame as an “unattractive habit,” and possible evidence of narcissism or Calvinism.35 But she, like most critics, fails to notice who he does not blame, and that is God.36 Surely a Calvinist (or a narcissist, for that matter, or a narcissistic Calvinist), wriggling on Sinfield’s pin of reprobation, and hearing the clock strike for his damnation, would blame primarily the God who created him for immutably decreed destruction. Faustus declines to do so, and even retracts the blame he casts at his parents, who begot him with both a soul and original sin. The fault, as he sees it, lies wholly with Lucifer and himself.37 So despite his earlier misrepresentations, Faustus in the end agrees with play and heavenly emissaries alike on the availability, and indeed the necessity, of choice and grace. The choice he has made – to reject God, refuse grace, assert his own agency, and stick to his guns – and all his subsequent affirmations of that choice will damn him, of course. But the obsequious silliness of his midplay hijinks, and the parodic scenes interspersed among the tragic ones, call the value of that choice into serious question. It can scarcely be argued that purloining papal victuals, or pranking horse-coursers, or fetching midwinter grapes for a pregnant duchess, is worth the loss of one’s soul; for what, then, has he done it? And what does this really indicate about his theology? He is not a Calvinist, faux or real, nor a sincere Arminian or Erasmian, and what those rejected positions share is a final reliance on grace and the disabled sinner’s submission to it. Faustus seems to turn against these out of a fundamentally (if semi-atheistically) Pelagian commitment to agency and symmetrical justice, a conviction that the human will must


Will: Marlowe

be able to control its own actions and destiny in a radical way. Pelagius, in the course of theologically elaborating this position, came to set aside grace and divine sovereignty in a way almost passive and incidental, but Faustus denies them deliberately and violently. Once he has abjured the Trinity, and is in the process of signing up with the supernatural power that will aid rather than deny his desires, he brags that “This word ‘damnation’ terrifies not him” (1.3.60), and when one considers how things turn out (and the fact that he is talking to a real live devil) it is tempting to see this as a moment of profound denial and self-deception. But his assertion is perhaps half true, in this sense: as I suggested earlier, Faustus seems less afraid of damnation than he is of grace. His fraudulent conjuring and silly antics may not seem to accomplish much in comparison to his magnificent ambitions, but they do enable him on a much smaller scale to temporarily escape the limiting and subordinating implications of absolute grace. They allow him to construct and live in a world wherein the will is fulfilled in action, and consequences follow justly from choices freely taken by an autonomous subject. In short, even in this attenuated form, his career embodies a radical embrace of the self-determining will. Better that, he thinks, than to live as object or vassal or slave of a God whose chief attributes are rigorous justice on one hand, and on the other a delight in arbitrarily subverting its operation. But this is the position of Faustus; the play’s position may be a different matter entirely, and both of its versions try very hard and in many ways – parodic deflation, character flaws, manifestly bad theology, disappointing exploits, normatively orthodox voices, and at the end a moralizing epilogue that “exhort[s] the wise” to not “practise more than heavenly power permits” – to contain him and his transgressive potential and make them liable to judgment. Even that epilogue, though, cannot fully suppress its own admiration of an extraordinary “forward wit” who pursued things of great “deepness” and power that others must only observe with fear and wonder. And its closing lesson, for all its sententious orthodoxy and affirmation of limit, is not focused on Calvinist determinism but on the consequentiality of choice. Though now for his transgressions “Faustus is gone” and cut off, it need not have been so; he “might have grown full straight” and blossomed in godly achievement had he not chosen to “practise” otherwise. The spectators are dismissed with a warning that their actions too have consequences, and must be limited to the permissible; to do more than “wonder at unlawful things” is to invite condemnation. But Faustus, surely, is one of those things. In pursuing agency unlimited, has he done the worst possible thing, or the

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


best possible thing, that a human might do? Neither the present argument, nor the play itself, can decisively resolve that dilemma, and neither is designed to do so; all they can do is present and provoke us, like Faustus himself, with a choice. My discussion thus far has centered mainly on the A-text, which I consider the better and more interesting version of the play, but it is only fair to consider whether the B-text presents a substantial challenge to my reading or requires its revision or limitation. The additions and revisions most relevant to the present discussion occur in the fifth act. Leah Marcus has associated the A-text with “radical Protestant or ‘Puritan’ opinion characterized by . . . insistence upon the full rigor of Calvinist doctrine,”38 and the B-text with a “milder and gentler” doctrinal disposition toward love, ethics, works, and remediable sin. There is some value in this description, but its limits are indicated almost immediately by a turn to qualification and vagueness. [the Old Man in A5.1.36–47] does not quite preach a doctrine of Calvinist predestination in that he describes heaven as a goal Faustus may “attaine” if he follows the “way of life,” but his exhortation bears all the usual hallmarks of strenuous Protestant spirituality: the emphasis on sin as a state of “loathsome” inward corruption, the portrayal of spiritual experience as an arduous pilgrimage toward the goal of “celestial rest” and of repentance as a soulsearching individual struggle.39

While Marcus is right that B speaks somewhat more gently about sin and Faustus’ ability to escape it than A does, it is not clear that there are such stark theological differences here. She concedes that the Old Man of A “does not quite” preach predestination, when he in fact does not preach it at all in this speech, urging Faustus rather to “attain the goal” of heaven by redirecting his path. She then presents evidence so ecumenical that it is difficult to imagine any thoughtful Lutheran or Arminian or Catholic disagreeing with much of it; even a full-bore Pelagian would take serious issue only with her first “hallmark.” It is true that B asserts an “amiable soul” in Faustus, and emphasizes its potential for course-correction more than A – but it does this by suppressing any mention of justifying atonement, raising the specter of hellish pain, and warning about pre-death points of no return. The A-text may, in its emphasis on sinfulness and sorrow, sound harsher, but it offers no less hope or agency to Faustus than B. It may indeed offer more, in the explicitly available and effective mercy of a sweet savior, and the same “vial full of precious grace” (A5.1.55) that is offered in B. Faustus in both cases responds with a similar sequence of horror, momentary comfort, and


Will: Marlowe

a prospect of introspection, but the Old Man’s responses to him are different. In A, he leaves “sweet Faustus . . . with heavy cheer, / Fearing the ruin of thy hopeless soul” (A5.1.61–2), and this, while not exactly an encouraging assessment, needn’t mean that there is no hope for Faustus’ soul (that reading sorts awkwardly with the non-certainty of “fearing”); it may mean that there is no hope in it at that moment. Old Man B, however, fears “the enemy of thy hapless soul” (B5.1.64), and this is actually more ominous: if “hapless” means, as the OED says, to be destitute of good fortune, then Faustus radically lacks something external to himself over which he has no control, and without which he may be utterly defenseless against the “enemy.” However, my point is not that there are no options or choices or hope at this point in B; it is that all are quite present in both versions, and we should be wary of jumping to unwarranted conclusions about A. In fact, though, the B-text will soon deny options and choices and hope to Faustus. In the very next scene, the three diabolical bigwigs ascend to watch the harvest of his soul. Mephistopheles assures Faustus that “now thou hast no hope of heaven; / Therefore despair. Think only upon hell, / For that must be thy mansion, there to dwell” (B5.2.92–4), and gleefully admits to distorting his Bible-reading in the opening scene of the play. Most portentously of all, a heavenly throne is lowered and then retracted while the Good Angel definitively (and in contradiction to his previous assurances) announces, in the perfect tense, that “thou hast lost celestial happiness” (B5.2.111). Does all this mean that B features Sinfield’s monstrous “reformation god,” and supports the tragedy-of-Calvinist-fate critical tradition? Demonstrably not. The devils are there to execute a contract and to gloat, and even they are uncertain how Faustus will behave: Beelzebub is eager to see how he will “demean himself,” while Mephistopheles confidently predicts that he will act in “desperate lunacy” (B5.2.10–11). The availability of grace and choice has been denied all along by him, the Bad Angel, and sometimes Faustus himself, though the rest of the play (including constant demonic bustling to keep him in line) has indicated otherwise. (As I have already observed, the page-turning certainly betrays external influence, but it does not override the prohibitive likelihood that the master theologian was already aware of Christianity’s central point. And in any case, true reprobation, the decreed withholding of grace, was not ultimately the work of even the craftiest devils, but the prerogative of God.) Furthermore, Good Angel B’s change of heart, while alarmingly definitive, gives us not the slightest hint of always-already reprobation.

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


O, thou hast lost celestial happiness, Pleasures unspeakable, bliss without end. Hadst thou affected sweet divinity, Hell or the devil had had no power on thee. Hadst thou kept on that way, Faustus, behold In what resplendent glory thou hadst set In yonder throne, like those bright shining saints, And triumphed over hell. That hast thou lost. And now, poor soul, must thy good angel leave thee. (B5.2.111–20) The jaws of hell are open to receive thee.

I have argued above that the B-text, unlike A, takes away options, both interpretive and soteriological, for both us and Faustus. That is clearly the case here, where all the past-tense counterfactual hadsts indicate that a corner has been irrevocably turned, a door slammed eternally shut. He is (now) denied the option of repentantly embracing God’s mercy, and we are denied the option of reading him as someone still exercising choice among meaningful alternatives. But this in no way requires or even implies reprobation, or Calvinism, or external determinism of any sort, and in fact the Good Angel’s speech suggests precisely the opposite: potential, opportunity, choice, consequence, loss. Something, apparently, has irretrievably changed, but we are not told what, and for the purposes of the present argument it does not matter. What does matter is that this choicelessness is a new development, and a direct consequence of his own responsibly agential decisions and actions, not an eternal and immutable divine decree. Things could have turned out very differently. And if anything, the B version sharpens the tragic irony of will in the play: Faustus asserts a doomed choicelessness he knows does not exist in order to give his will fuller and freer rein, but it is this very exercise of will that results in the eventual extinction of his agency.40 That loss, in turn, lessens the urgency of the final scene, and takes away much of the potential for heroic integrity that some see in A. The Faustus of B has at the end no choice, nothing to prove, and nowhere to go but down. I would like to conclude by returning to the play’s beginning, and a troubling line shared by A and B. The Prologue gives us what may be the most unambiguous textual evidence for a determinist reading in its claim that Faustus excelled “[i]n heavenly matters of theology[,] / Till, swoll’n with cunning of a self-conceit, / His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting heavens conspired his overthrow” (A 19–22, emphasis added). This assertion of heavenly conspiracy, especially occurring as it does at the very beginning of the play, powerfully frames and


Will: Marlowe

shapes readers’ thinking about the nature of the action that is about to unfold, and it seems quite definitive. Admittedly, it offers the strongest suggestion of preordained reprobation in the play, and Bevington among many others reads it as such.41 But upon closer inspection, this turns out to be less clear, and indeed there is no clear evidence that this sinister divine plot was preordained after all. Rather, it is the conclusion of a plot-like sequence – theological excellence ≫ self-conceit ≫ transgressive overreaching ≫ overthrow – in which the “conspiring” simply follows a coordinating conjunction in order. One might very reasonably infer a linear logic and a silent thus in this sequence, suggesting that the conspiring and the overthrowing are a result of or response to Faustus’ transgression, not its causal precondition. But to reverse that relation and read and as because (and thus to see Faustus’ destruction as the inevitable result of divine conspiracy) is an unpersuasive stretching of syntax and logic, requiring another version of the interpretive assumption and imposition that this chapter has set itself against. The residual problem with the nondeterminist reading, though, is that it does not account for the inevitably negative connotations of conspiring, which always indicates underhandedness, evil intent, one-sidedness, victimization, or other sorts of unfair nastiness. This, however, is not the case: to conspire, from the Latin conspirare, etymologically means simply “to breathe together.” The OED accordingly lists several neutral and even positively cooperative senses of the word that were either already available in 1590, or about to come into use. To conspire could mean “To combine in action or aim; to act in purposive combination, union, or harmony” (3a, 1538), though this sense is intransitive; or “To combine, concur, co-operate as by intention (so as to effect a certain result)” (3b, 1575); or “To concur or agree in spirit, sentiment, sense, tenor, testimony, assertion, etc” (4, 1579); or “To unite in producing; to concur to” (5, 1614). With all these possibilities of combination, agreement, cooperation, even union or harmony, “conspired” begins to look a lot less resolutely determinative.42 It may well be better read as consecutive or collaborative or both, or simply as an assent to the act or intention of another agent. This lexical ambiguity weakens a keystone of the predestinarian reading, and affirms what I have been arguing all along: that the plot and logic of this play can only be taken as clearly determinist, and thus as some sort of critique of Calvinism and its implications, by acts of interpretive and critical fiat that are either careless or, dare I say it, overdetermined. Marlowe’s interest is not in erasing or denying either human agency or

Faustus and the Nightmare of his Choice


its limits, but in exploring the urgent dynamics of testing and negotiating that contentious boundary between human capacity and divine prerogative. To recognize this does not necessarily entail seeing Faustus either as a humanist hero aspiring to enlarge the horizons of humanity, or as a sinner rightly damned; both conclusions are supportable, and I do not claim or seek to resolve that perennial conflict. But we should subject to closer scrutiny widespread critical claims that an explicitly Calvinist God is the real villain of Doctor Faustus, and the protagonist a helpless victim of that God’s sadistic machinations – or, indeed, that the play is fundamentally and critically “about” Calvinism or any other form of determinism. Such claims, I have argued, cannot be sustained from the text, are instead foisted upon it, and result in a distorted and decidedly less interesting play that is indeed deprived of its energy and will.

chapter 3

Action: Revenge Tragedy

Be’t as our gods will have’t; it only stands Our lives upon to use our strongest hands.

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 2.1

Freedom is the recognition of necessity. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring

Let me begin by stipulating for the sake of argument that much of what is said about Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy is true. The subgenre, typically structured as a problematic contest between an individual who desires to act and some array of earthly and transcendent constraints, engages deeply and bloodily with the contexts and problematics of action. Over the past eight or so decades, many critics (including Campbell, Bowers, S. F. Johnson, Hunter, Prosser, Broude, Diehl, Watson, Rist, Woodbridge, Shell, Kerrigan, and Greenblatt) have valuably considered various dynamics of individual action and constraint in these plays. Revenge was sternly forbidden by church and state alike as a usurpation of divine and governmental prerogative (Campbell, Prosser). But it was also a potent and viscerally satisfying legacy of England‘s Germanic and classical heritage, and in some modes still widely embraced in the sixteenth century (Bowers). Revenge tragedy fundamentally exploits the tensions between these two cultural imperatives (Watson, Altman). It also enacts fantasies of economic, political, and social justice (Woodbridge), involves mourning and memory (Garber, Greenblatt 2001, Rist), and may very well be connected to anxieties about the increasingly centralized and pervasive, but nonetheless limited and flawed, state justice system, and the diminishing space it left for individual pursuits of justice (Broude 1975, Watson). I’m quite happy to concede any or all of these propositions, for in this chapter my intention is not to dispute them but to focus on another important aspect of the genre that isn’t often discussed in the critical metadiscourse about it: how 106

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fundamentally theological the basic problematics of the genre are, in ways that go well beyond simply acknowledging the contemporary force (or impotence) of Christian prohibitions of revenge. To the extent that religion has played a significant role in critical discourse on revenge tragedy – and it has in some cases been conspicuously downplayed or ignored1 – discussions have mostly centered around two issues that have not always proven optimally productive, partly because of the binary and/or polemically fraught ways in which they are often framed and pursued, and partly because such readings often take an insufficiently synecdochic view of the subgenre’s characteristic act. The first is whether the genre is for or against revenge (that is, whether Christian teachings and God’s prerogative justice prevail over pagan desires for equity): some arguing that revenge tragedy is by definition critical of its subject,2 others contending rather that vengeance is freely endorsed and indulged in (Woodbridge goes so far as to speak of the “plays’ fervent devotion to revenge”3). But the binary shape that this argument often assumes renders it relatively unproductive because most revenge tragedies take quite seriously both the attraction and the repulsion of revenge, and recognize both the deep satisfactions it offers and the serious moral, social, and religious objections it provokes. To argue that revenge tragedy entirely either loves or hates its subject is to misunderstand the genre at a very basic level, with the unfortunate further consequence that religion is reduced to a did-they-take-it-seriously-or-not referendum that one suspects might tell us more about the critic’s personal convictions than it does about the plays. Bacon’s description of revenge as “wild justice” encapsulates these tensions nicely in that revenge is, admittedly, wild, but it is also a kind of justice, and to reduce the audience and the interest of these plays to caricatures of either finger-wagging condemnation or untroubled affirmation will get us no further than halfway to understanding. The second way in which religion tends to be discussed, also less productively than one would hope, is in debates over whether English revenge tragedy is essentially Protestant or Catholic. The former camp points to the fact that most of these plays are set in Italy or Spain, and some contain explicit critiques of Catholicism; the latter group argues that, for example, imagined revenge for the dead took the place of lost Catholic prayers for the dead in post-Reformation England.4 These are not silly questions, and like the question of revenge they are provoked by the plays – but here too, why must the genre declare or have a wholehearted party affiliation? If Aquinas and Perkins held similar positions on revenge,5 and revenge narratives flourished in Italy and


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France as well as in England, is confessional sheep-and-goat sorting really likely to be productive?6 Both of these cases exhibit an impulse toward wringing declarations out of these plays, and I think this is a critical error when talking about texts that, at their best, and like most compelling literature, really live and breathe in the medium of complex struggle and tension. Rather than treating the plays as compulsory referenda on revenge or confessional commitment, our critical energies might be better spent in addressing these problems as problems, and abstracting them a step to treat them in terms of the complex dynamics of agency that underlie both. Accordingly, this chapter will steer a course between the Scylla of confessional overinvestment and the Charybdis of critical underattention to religion to argue that while the basic problematics of the genre are indeed fundamentally theological, they are so in ways that go well beyond simply asserting the contemporary force or impotence of Christian prohibitions of revenge, or recycling the polemical oppositions of the Reformation. The question is not whether a given play is for or against revenge (most are both), or whether it loves or hates Catholicism (it might do either, or neither, or both), but rather what compellingly unresolved conflicts underlie its interest. I will suggest that those motive issues might better be sought, and the plays more deeply and complexly understood, by attending to perennial and foundational problems of agency than by searching them for decisive positions on confessional identity or revenge itself. Indeed, there is more at stake in revenge tragedy than just the nature or status of revenge; the genre’s larger concern is the nature, status, conditions, and consequent ethics of human action itself, and of the agential subject that performs it. Revenge often functions in this genre as a condensed emblem of human agency in all its troubling glory, and is used to highlight its underlying theological tensions. Only rarely does a play consistently declare an absolute position for or against revenge, and only rarely is it treated wholly as a reprehensible act against the divine or as a heroic assertion of its own autonomous necessity. Rather, revenge tragedies exist on a continuum between these poles, and articulate complex dynamics of agency that negotiate between oppositional, cooperative, and independent accounts of human and divine action in ways that are deeply (if not always explicitly) theological. All of these models necessarily posit some relationship (or lack thereof) between the earthly and transcendent in their meditations on justice and action, but it is not clear that this link is best conceived as a mechanism of effectiveness or fairness. Linda Woodbridge complains that “Calvinist

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election uncoupled reward and punishment from desert – the evil might be elect, the good damned,” and is at least partially right to observe that “radical Christians, like revengers, quested after fairness,”7 revenge being dependent on a logic of equity and reciprocity. But for Paul and his strongly Augustinian heirs, sin has bereft humanity of true goodness, which can only be restored by grace; desert without grace can only go one way (that is, down), and fairness is therefore the last thing a sinner should want. Since nothing we can do can atone for our guilt, Paul argued, our best and only hope is unmerited grace. Hamlet understands this principle perfectly: “use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” (2.2.529–30).8 Indeed, while revenge tragedy offers a tantalizing prospect of action and equity, tragedy in its purest forms, from Oedipus to Lear to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is often about that which cannot be (though perhaps it could have been) helped: injustice, suffering, alienation, death, plots already written without our consent. In this sense it resembles the tradition from Paul to Augustine to Calvin, and between that inevitability and our ceaseless efforts to control or subvert it (that is, the tradition from James to Pelagius to Arminius and beyond) lies the poignance of the human condition outlined by theologians and tragedians alike. This further suggests that revenge tragedy is about more than just revenge; it is about the problematic conditions, limitations, and responsibilities of human action itself. In the following analyses of The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, I will argue that (a) the worlds and protagonists of these tragedies are constituted (if sometimes indirectly) in centrally religious terms; (b) more specifically, the protagonists, while, it is true, often caught between blood-satisfaction and Christian forbearance (or other forms of inaction), are more interestingly engaged and constituted by oscillating senses of their perceived relation to the divine; and (c) the protagonists’ wrestlings with these theological problems serve as the trigger and indeed the precondition for the action that the plays thematize so directly. The category of agency will be considerably broader here than in my other chapters – to the point of including things like murder, drama, and incest, in a lateral move toward action in general – and this is precisely its twofold point: to demonstrate that, on one hand, problems of agency go well beyond the soteriological or the explicitly religious,9 while on the other hand, even forms of action which appear to be secular and transgressive are ultimately rooted in the theological problems that this book is about; while the broad problematics of early modern agency are neither limited nor reducible to theology, they are also virtually impossible to


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entirely sever from it. Hamlet, in particular, smart fellow that he is, will make these links rather explicit.10

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge” Thomas Kyd’s great play The Spanish Tragedy – the play that sparked the revenge craze in early modern England – is at first glance surprisingly nonsectarian and indeed even non-Christian. It is framed in an explicitly classical and pagan context; most of its references to an unmistakably Christian God are in the non-Kydian 1602 additions; no mention at all is made of “Jesus” or “Christ”; and most of its remaining references to the divine are either oaths or relatively nonspecific appeals to “gods” and “heavens.” Beyond the overtly political anti-Spanish dimensions that one would expect in the Armada years, the play in fact seems to deliberately sidestep direct involvement in the theological problems of Kyd’s time. But Kyd either could not or simply did not altogether avoid those problems; in its displaced and masked way, The Spanish Tragedy is (by way of its interrogation of action, equity, and ethics) very deeply about contemporary theological issues of agency. In the end, I will argue that careful attention to both the play’s main action and its pagan frame can illuminate the theological nature and stakes of the play’s agential concerns. The long monologue of Andrea’s ghost that begins the play is, despite being set in a thoroughly pagan context, riddled with theological tensions. In one sense this speech initially appears to be about identity – is he a lover or a fighter? where does he belong? – but in a larger sense it is about action and its relation to destiny (what kind of eternity have his earthly actions earned him?), here frozen into multiple forms of suspension. Charon at first refuses to even ferry Andrea’s soul into Hades until he is properly buried; once that is done, the official judges of the underworld seem flummoxed as to where to put him, and forward the case to their boss, but even Pluto defers his judgment onto Proserpine, who in fact renders no decision but sends Andrea to see a play with a new friend. But this is neither the end of Andrea’s predicament, nor its beginning. As he explains to his companion Revenge and us at the play’s start: When this eternal substance of my soul Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh, Each in their function serving other’s need, I was a courtier in the Spanish court. My name was Don Andrea, my descent, Though not ignoble, yet inferior far

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge” To gracious fortunes of my tender youth. For there in prime and pride of all my years, By duteous service and deserving love, In secret I possessed a worthy dame, Which hight sweet Bel-imperia by name. But in the harvest of my summer joys, Death’s winter nipped the blossoms of my bliss, Forcing divorce betwixt my love and me. For in the late conflict with Portingale My valour drew me into danger’s mouth, Till life to death made passage through my wounds.11



Here and elsewhere in the play, amid the courtly clichés and rhetorical patternings we can hear echoes of the play’s suppressed theological stakes. Note all the tense oppositions Andrea limns here: soul and body, death and life, winter and summer, love and battle, the self as active subject and passive object. Three features of the first section of this speech exemplify and deepen these conflicts. First is the troubled relationship of soul and body in the play’s opening lines, eternal substance imprisoned in wanton flesh, but the implicit pietude of this tension (which conventionally privileges the soul over its refractory incarnation) does not result in any visible sense of liberation or transcendence when the soul is freed; what we get instead is a hollow sense of spectral lostness in a pagan underworld, followed increasingly by a hunger for retaliation. These initial pressures adumbrate a central conflict between the expected Christian and providentialist understanding of wrong and transcendence on the one hand, and on the other a more bloody, activist and material impulse toward dissatisfaction and action that seems more immediately compelling. Two further complications extend this basic problematic in interesting directions when Andrea’s ghost posits a hierarchy between his “descent” (that is, that inheritance over which he had no control) and the “gracious fortunes of my tender youth.” His middling, nonroyal but “not ignoble” lineage is easy enough to understand, but what are we to make of the “gracious fortunes” that outweigh its determinist influence? Do we take “fortunes” to indicate the capricious favors of the blind goddess, and “gracious” to intensify its arbitrariness by evoking, in a theologically inflected term, the gifty gratuitousness of those favors? If so, then Andrea’s microautobiography reads like a determined complex of effects, a shaped object of various external agencies. Or do we take “fortunes” in a more Baconian sense, as things one makes for oneself,12 and “gracious” simply as an indirect descriptor of how one does so? That reading obviously makes Andrea more of a self-made man, with a heightened form of


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agency that trumps the immutable circumstances of his birth. Perhaps the third pairing, of “duteous service” and “deserving love,” will provide us with some direction. These appear to be the two conditions for Andrea’s “possession” of Bel-Imperia (which may be the “gracious fortune” of the preceding lines), but here again, we run into significant lexical and logical ambiguities. “Duteous service” implies obligation and subordination, but the fulfillment of that obligation might be seen as voluntary and meritorious (thereby incurring some kind of debt owed to the server), or simply as a recognition of subordination and duty done (not creating any debt or inequity either way). “Deserving love” is even trickier: is “deserving” a participial adjective, grammatically aligned with “duteous,” or a participial verb, describing a state of earned desert between the service and the possessing? That is, is the love what he rendered deservedly to Bel-Imperia, or what she owed him? These syntactical questions are not neatly resolvable, and they have significant consequences. Their accumulation generates a sense of a character in radical crisis, whose identity, place, destiny, mode of being, and capacity for action are in serious question. What we can particularly discern after attending closely to the play’s first eleven lines is a foundational uncertainty about body and soul, subject and object, action and passivity, merit and grace – in short, whether humans earn what they get, and get what they deserve, or whether they simply get what they get by a logic inscrutable and arbitrary. This ambiguity turns out to be an important structuring principle of the play. Revenge proffers the symmetrical pleasure of his trademark mode at the end of that first scene, but the following scene reminds us that the questions are not that easy. In it, the captured Balthazar says stoically that “cards once dealt, it boots not ask why so” (1.2.140) as he submits to his defeat and captivity. The King of Spain responds, Meanwhile live thou, though not in liberty, Yet free from bearing any servile yoke; For in our hearing thy deserts were great, And in our sight thyself art gracious.


Of course, the King is not talking theology here, but he (and the play generally) is using its vocabulary, and recapitulating its tensions in a different context. Balthazar, like Andrea, exists neither in liberty nor in bondage, but somewhere in between. He has earned or deserved something, but it is not entirely clear what, and it is also unclear whether the King’s seeing him as “gracious” – i.e., possessing grace – has been earned and deserved, or if the King (who has already asserted and declined his right to reciprocate Portugal’s transgression with “evil measure” [1.2.136]) is

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


simply imputing it to him. To further complicate matters, when Balthazar responds, “And I shall study to deserve this grace” (1.2.151), he simultaneously invokes the logic of deserving, and makes clear that that deserving is posterior to grace, a response to it rather than its precondition. In the remainder of this scene, the squabble over whose prisoner he is presents another version of the deeper issues in this play (again, not engaging in theology per se but sounding very like it). Balthazar says that he surrendered to Horatio because of what he had done, and to Lorenzo because of who he was: “To [Lorenzo] in courtesy, to [Horatio] perforce” (1.2.162), acknowledging the competing and differing logics of choice and necessity, rank and action. Concerned about the false equity implied in this balanced formulation, Hieronimo – who, the play never lets us forget, is in charge of justice – interjects that “Enforced by nature and by law of arms / My tongue should plead for young Horatio’s right. / He hunted well that was a lion’s death, / Not he that in a garment wore his skin” (1.2.168–71). Simply putting something on isn’t equivalent to deserving it, and is indeed mere imposterism unless one has earned it through action.13 After reassuring Hieronimo of his impartiality, the King asks the disputants, “Will both abide the censure of my doom?” and Lorenzo promptly responds, “I crave no better than your grace awards.” It is Horatio, our temporary protagonist, whose response should be more troubling to attentive English Protestants: “Nor I, although I sit beside my right” (1.2.177). The King, unfortunately, will attempt to split the difference, thus fully satisfying neither Horatio’s interest in desert and equity, nor Lorenzo’s in entitlement by way of arbitrary dispensation. The first-act interest that Hieronimo and his son demonstrate in rights of merited reward, and their corresponding skepticism regarding gratuitous bestowal, will play a crucial role in what happens after Horatio’s murder. This commitment to equity (a word derived from the Latin aequus, meaning “even” or “fair,” and thus a word that has balance, reciprocity, and symmetry built into its notion of right), one should note carefully, is central to Hieronimo’s remarkable suitability to the administration of justice: we are later assured by a citizen that “There’s not any advocate in Spain / That can prevail, or will take half the pain / That he will, in pursuit of equity” (3.13.52–4). But this “pursuit of equity” is not uncomplicated, and it can lead to dark places. It is undoubtedly what makes Hieronimo such a good executor of state justice, and in this role he performs what was widely considered to be the ordinary form of divine vengeance: the everyday working of God-ordained institutions of justice. But Hieronimo slides quickly from this mode into the much dicier one of


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personal violence and retribution, driven by his supposed inability to achieve justice institutionally, and by his resulting sense of irremediable inequity that drives him to color outside the lines. What makes this counterintuitive transition possible? Both the disappointment and the improvisation are powered by a similar principle of symmetrical justice, but this should not obscure the fact that the changeover reveals important things about him. All of his appeals to heaven are appeals for justice – present justice, which is important, and which I will return to momentarily – and when those don’t pan out, he shows himself quite willing to take his business elsewhere and look for its evil twin in the other place (“I’ll make a pickaxe of my poniard, / And here surrender up my marshalship: / For I’ll go marshal up the fiends in hell, / To be avenged on you all for this” [3.12.75–8]). In other words, while equity underwrites state justice, it can also lead to its abandonment, trump metaphysical affiliation, and indeed override right and wrong altogether. This change of offices appears to occasion none of the doubt or metaphysical crisis that we will see in Hamlet; Hieronimo’s traumas, while serious, appear to be limited to being bereaved of a son and unable to do his job, and in an inverted sort of way this relative lack of moral reflection is a religious problem, an implicit critique or avoidance or even rejection of metaphysics. Indeed, what emerges from this analysis is a recognition that Hieronimo’s approach to justice and action has been solipsistic from the start. In an influential 1931 essay, Lily B. Campbell enumerated many Elizabethan articulations of the Christian anti-revenge theme to argue that it was the dominant view of this culture, and highlighted the principle that “God’s vengeance may be delayed but is nevertheless sure. It is to the consideration of this last problem, the problem of God’s delay, that the philosophers most often addressed themselves.”14 The issue of delay or suspension is central, because it raises questions about the certainty of God’s justice. Is the temporal emptiness of delay to be filled with patient faith, or with individual initiative? Campbell goes on to make an often-cited distinction between three different kinds of revenge: “revenge must be reckoned as including God’s revenge, public revenge committed to the rulers by God, and private revenge forbidden alike by God and by the state as his representative.”15 While her claim that Elizabethan culture harbored no conflicts regarding the wrongness of private revenge is unsustainable, this subdivision does help us see something useful about the Christian objection to private revenge: it implies a lack of faith in God. Divine justice could operate through a large variety of channels in this world – bureaucracy, accident, illness, lightning – but hell is its final guarantor, and God might perfectly well reserve his vengeance for the afterlife

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


in any given case.16 Seen in this light, the revenger’s unilateral insistence on present, worldly justice (“naught but blood will satisfy my woes” [3.7.68]) would seem to imply not just impatience but a more comprehensive distrust of divine oversight, and a seizure of control through direct action – which is to say that it implicitly and inherently takes a rather clear position on the theological version of the agency question.17 One way around this is traditionally to understand oneself as an ordained instrument of vengeance, as Hamlet will a decade later, but in that case how does one know one’s vindictive calling is real, and not a self-justifying delusion? Answering this might involve looking, as Hamlet does, for evidence of heavenly leading or alignment, or considering whether the revenge is contrary to one’s own will. But while Hieronimo’s rhetoric occasionally hints at a belief in divine justice (see, for example, 3.7.56), and even a confederation with it (in 4.1 especially but briefly), this is not the general tenor of his thinking on the subject. He acts most often like heaven’s judge, not its subordinate instrument; any alignment is on his terms, and he acts to supplement or displace heaven’s imperfect activity in this life. Actually, to say even that much about Hieronimo’s positioning is a bit misleading. His sense of revenge as a response to state and divine failures to act is something that develops only over time in the play, and problematically; what is constant from the start is his desire for personal retributive violence. When he discovers Horatio’s dead body in the second act, Hieronimo’s thoughts, after his initial outburst of grief, turn immediately to revenge – not divine or state justice, but bloody individual satisfaction. To know the author were some ease of grief, For in revenge my heart would find relief . . . See’st thou this handkercher besmeared with blood? It shall not from me till I take revenge. See’st thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh? I’ll not entomb them till I have revenged. Then will I joy amidst my discontent, Till then my sorrow never shall be spent.18 (2.5.40–1, 2.5.51–6)

Ernst de Chickera, in a frequently cited 1962 article, optimistically contends that these lines are “so ambiguous that at first sight they may appear to refer to private revenge,”19 but there is little ambiguity here. This is not a patient waiting for God, or an eager anticipation of the sure working of state justice; it is an almost instant hunger for first-person retribution as the only means to “joy.” Isabella has to remind her husband that “The heavens are just, murder cannot be hid: / Time is the author both


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of truth and right” (2.5.57–8),20 but as Hieronimo’s following Latin speech makes clear, he sees time less as something in which one waits for God’s sure justice than as something needed to act in. He first discusses divine justice, and proposes a prospective judgment of it, only in the third act. O sacred heavens! If this unhallowed deed, If this inhuman and barbarous attempt, If this incomparable murder thus Of mine, but now no more my son, Shall unrevealed and unrevenged pass, How should we term your dealings to be just, If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?


But it is important to note that, as the multiple speculative “ifs” attest, neither heaven nor the state have even remotely failed him at this point – and in fact, the almost immediate arrival of Bel-Imperia’s letter from above might well be seen as providential in direction, timing, and content, identifying Horatio’s murderers as if in direct response to Hieronimo’s prayer. Of course, the letter exhorts him to “revenge thyself,” without any reference to institutional or transcendent forms of justice; this conveniently affirms his already-existing inclinations, but lines 10–11 suggest that despite a dearth of evidence, those other avenues have already been dismissed and this conclusion has already been arrived at. As he has told us before delivery, Horatio’s wounds and the visions of the night “solicit me for notice of his death” (3.2.15). Seen in this light, Hieronimo’s subsequent complaints contain, alongside their pathos, more deliberate self-assertion than is often recognized. He laments that “unjustly we, / For all our wrongs, can compass no redress . . . / only I to all men just must be, / And neither gods nor men be just to me,” and doubts that “by justice of the heavens” he will ever “know the cause that may my cares allay” (3.6.1–10). But the intervening scenes have provided virtually no evidence for these claims, and as far as we know he has not sought redress or justice from gods or men. If that “cause” is the identity of the murderers, he has already been given that in the first letter, and any residual doubts about that will be erased by Pedringano’s corroborating epistle in the following scene – a letter whose delivery, like the first, occurs as if in answer to prayer (3.7.10–18), thus undercutting his claims of heavenly apathy. It is not until the end of that scene, hundreds of lines after Horatio’s murder, and after two arguably answered prayers, that Hieronimo finally decides to “go plain me to my lord the king, / And cry

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


aloud for justice through the court” (3.7.69–70). When he does so in 3.12, he is thwarted with such ease by Lorenzo that more skeptical critical scrutiny is required; if Hieronimo has the needed status and respect and evidence to press his urgent claim to the King, why does he not do so more effectively, and why does he give up so readily? Most accounts of the play either ignore this problem or attempt to explain it away by blaming circumstances, or rank, or madness, or the King.21 But by this point, having witnessed his initial (and still unabated and central) impulse for personal bloodshed, his lackadaisical pursuit of justice through established channels, and his disregard for what may be divine assistance, one might be forgiven for wondering whether he is simply undertaking a pro forma exercise in bureaucratic base-covering to clear the way for the bloody individual action he has been intending for some time.22 In a sense, though, it may not matter much whether Hieronimo’s appeals are sincere or merely help rationalize his resolve, and the availability of both readings illuminates some important things about the dynamics of agency in this play. What appears to be most important is that he register alienation from both institutional and divine justice, and see them both as failed, in order to validate his resolve for personal revenge; he has been doing this, more on presumption than on evidence, at least since 3.2. But he also needs to experience some degree of identification with divine justice, even if as its judge and executioner (he has, after all, already concluded that Lorenzo and company “did what heaven unpunished would not leave” [3.7.56]). Witness his famous speech in 3.13, which follows his first cryptic appeals to the king: Vindicta mihi! Ay, heaven will be revenged of every ill, Nor will they suffer murder unrepaid: Then stay, Hieronimo, attend their will, For mortal men may not appoint their time.


It would seem that one could hardly ask for a more direct or conventional articulation of the Christian prohibition of personal retributive violence. But even here there are problems: by leaving out the crucial “dicit Dominus” from his opening quotation of Romans 12:19, he ends up speaking in an ambiguous first person that could be ventriloquizing God’s prerogative or staking his own.23 And in any case, the entirely orthodox sentiments of lines 2–5 give way abruptly, apparently triggered by his reading of Seneca, to an emphatic reaffirmation of his resolve to


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what he will soon call “sweet revenge” (3.13.107). Hieronimo indeed never seems to very seriously consider using his position to effect institutional justice, which he sees as a failed (though actually largely untried) system. Similarly, he complains a great deal about heaven’s indifference, regardless of potential evidence to the contrary, because he has to in order to feel unheard. These senses of alienation and failure, that is, are required for him to feel legitimately vengeful, and for him to be able to effectively identify his own bloody desires and actions as the will of heaven; he has to understand the state and the divine as both negligent and commissioning (even if in a mode of default) in order to understand himself as legitimately qualified for satisfying individual action. The speech claims to “conclude, I will revenge his death!” (3.13.20), but logically does not conclude so much as ramble toward a sort of fatalist activism that prompts individual initiative under the usefully vague aegis of “destiny” (fata). Hieronimo occasionally attempts to harmonize transcendent and personal agency, but whether these struggles are fully genuine or, as I have suggested, more of an exercise in self-legitimation, he doesn’t exactly obsess over them, and he always in practice privileges his own desires. Though he may at times talk like a compatibilist or even a determinist, he quite consistently acts like a libertarian. After this pivotal scene, Hieronimo becomes fully decisive, definitively declaring the exile of justice and craftily pursuing the bloodshed he has long ago resolved upon. Only in one scene of the final act does he revisit his relation to divine agency, and that is done to quite bizarrely interpret BelImperia’s decidedly nontheological scolding as a sign of heavenly endorsement: “Why then, I see that heaven applies our drift / And all the saints do sit soliciting / For vengeance on those cursed murderers” (4.1.32–4). After all the almost unbearable ironies of the play rehearsal with his victims, he smugly concludes, “Now shall I see the fall of Babylon, / Wrought by the heavens in this confusion” (4.1.195–6). But the desire and the working are his, not heaven’s, and neither the playlet nor its aftermath indicate any explicit concern with divine justice or vindication among the litter of corpses. Hieronimo’s bloodcurdling speech of explanation is all about his identity, his loss, his grief, his vow, his bloody and satisfied heart, his appointing and determining power as playwright and agent, “Author and actor of this tragedy, / Bearing his latest fortune in his fist” (4.4.147–8) rather than the other way around. When he does mention heavenly vengeance on the slaughtered Lorenzo and Balthazar, “upon whose souls may heav’ns be yet avenged / With greater far than these afflictions” (4.4.174–5), his point seems to be the distinction between the two forms of

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


revenge rather than their coordination. Divine payback may, he hopes, reiterate and amplify his own, but they appear to be independent functions, and if he really had full faith in the former, why would the latter be necessary except as self-gratification? These agential conflicts are echoed by several complex analogues in The Spanish Tragedy, which speak indirectly to the central dynamics I have sketched out. One is Hieronimo’s madness, which, whether real or feigned, provides an instance in which the executive will must be compromised in order to fully realize itself; only through the defused agency of madness is Hieronimo able to accomplish what he really, really wants. Another is Bel-Imperia’s suicidal off-script improvisation, contrary to the end that Hieronimo had scripted to spare her (see 4.4.135–45); in doing so she in effect refuses authorial grace and self-destructs in a supreme act of self-determination, thus leaving the godlike author’s will effective to kill but ineffective to save. Perhaps most interesting of all is Pedringano’s box, the play’s one real foray into grim comedy. Lorenzo sends his page to bring a box to the appointed execution of the arrested and condemned Pedringano, and instructs him to Bid him not doubt of his delivery. Tell him his pardon is already signed, And thereon bid him boldly be resolved . . . Show him this box, tell him his pardon’s in’t . . . (3.4.66–8, 3.4.72)

In the following scene, the page, unable to contain his curiosity, peeks inside the box and discovers that “here’s nothing but the bare empty box” (3.5.6). The promised pardon is a sham that will send Pedringano to his doom with more guilt and swaggering confidence, and he, more opportunistic than bright, plays the part fully, confessing, wisecracking, and trusting Lorenzo until the moment his neck snaps. John Kerrigan aptly compares Pedringano to “an overconfident Calvinist,”24 but does not explicate the ironies of the box’s almost complete inversion and perversion of Calvin’s doctrine of grace: it represents a “pardon” which has been earned, not bestowed, and not by righteousness or atonement but by sin and crime; which by its promise fills its recipient with gleeful assurance and joy in his misdeeds, thereby preventing him from taking any potentially saving action; and which proves in its nonexistence to be not only a con but the letter that kills. I will take up the problematics of assurance more fully in my next chapter, but here is an assurance that is problematic indeed, a box of death fatally misunderstood by a fool and criminal as a promise of life.


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I have, much like the plot of The Spanish Tragedy (the dislocation of which is one of the play’s major critical problems), appeared to forget about the plight of Andrea with which I began. But of course, Pedringano is not the only bustler who is unaware that he is simply playing a prescripted role, and a tragic one at that; Revenge has in the play’s first scene assured Andrea that he will see his lover murder his killer (1.1.86–9). Their periodic reappearance, while perhaps ironically funny, is a serious reminder of something very important: the actors in this play may think of and conduct themselves as fully autonomous agents, but the frame suggests that their apparently self-generated actions are subject to the authorial and directorial will of at least one supernatural agent within the world of the play (to say nothing of the text or Kyd and whatever forces were acting in turn upon him). Andrea’s rising dismay and panic at seeing his friends suffer and enemies prosper is met by Revenge’s imperturbable calm – a sanguinity that evidently builds to fairly extensive napping. Upon being awakened after the third act, he reassures his impatient protégé: Nor dies Revenge although he sleep awhile, For in unquiet, quietness is feigned, And slumbering is a common worldly wile. Behold, Andrea, for an instance how Revenge hath slept, and then imagine thou What ’tis to be subject to destiny.


What follows is, significantly, a prophetic allegorical dumb-show; Hieronimo is neither the only nor the greatest playwriter in Kyd’s play, and while Bel-Imperia may have improvised her way out of his script, she (and Balthazar) will not escape the immutable promptbook of Revenge. The play’s structural reliance on “destiny,” however, does not resolve the problem of human agency by annihilating it. Revenge is an irresistible playwright, but a sketchy one. When we hear him promise Andrea in the opening scene that “thou shalt see the author of thy death, / Don Balthazar, the prince of Portingale, / Deprived of life by Bel-Imperia” (1.1.87–9), we have reached the limits of what we can confidently know about Revenge’s absolute foreordination: he has determined a single specified outcome of the story he has just been told. Nothing else in the play carries this specific kind of divinely predetermined inevitability. Even Revenge’s later announcement that he will “turn [Horatio and Balthazar’s] friendship into fell despite” (1.5.6), since there has been no indication that this was part of his initial design, comes off as a piece of ad hoc plotting in response

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


to human actions, an effort to direct and subordinate them to the destined goal rather than part of a fully prescripted plan. Such improvisational subordination of unruly and unpredicted human action to that guaranteed and single-minded master plot is (in its satisfaction of questions that the frame seems designed to provoke) one of the chief structural pleasures of the play, but it is also the source of some of its most notorious critical problems. Critics have long noted, and fretted over, the shakiness of the originary claim to vengeance; the disjuncture of the play’s shift in focus from Bel-Imperia’s revenge for Andrea to Hieronimo’s revenge for Horatio; the odd indirectness and incoherence of Hieronimo’s pursuit of conventional justice; and the wild excess of revenge in the final act, including the needless murder of Castile, who has apparently done nothing wrong. Typically, critics who focus on these problems have either lamented them as defects, or attempted to integrate them into some larger pattern of structural or thematic consistency (often having to do with the nature of justice or violence, or the corruptness of the Iberian peninsula).25 But perhaps we might learn something by resisting, even if temporarily, the impulses to dismiss or smooth out, and attending instead to what these difficulties might show us. One thing they might productively indicate is the complexity of the play’s treatment of the conflicting imperatives of revenge. After all the prior dislocations have undermined the moral clarity of cleanly symmetrical and necessary revenge, Andrea’s slavering bloodlust at play’s end prompts ethical and spectatorial reflection when he indiscriminately celebrates the slaughter of foes and friends alike as “spectacles to please my soul” (4.5.12). He then doubles down on the Castile question by wishing on him the eternal torments of Tityus; Revenge in turn affirms this by including Castile – who, let us remember, is apparently guilty of no more than questioning his daughter’s choice of boyfriend – in the group headed for “endless tragedy.” This is disturbing, but these things have, of course, also pleased and satisfied centuries of audiences and readers, and fulfilled their desires for action, closure and justice even as the play provokes them to examine their complicity in the ambivalent and troubling dynamics of revenge. Even more importantly, these disjunctions illuminate how the play is working out the problems of agency that I have suggested are fundamental to it, and to revenge tragedy generally. The Spanish Tragedy begins with a backstory and a single, supernaturally ordained end; what comes between the two, the Aristotelian middle, must follow that beginning and end in that end, but the means of that development are haphazard and, so far as we can tell, incorporated on the fly rather than predestined.26 We never, for


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example, see Revenge directly intervening into the play’s action, and this suggests that Revenge’s authorial control is real but not comprehensive; it involves coordinating and subordinating disorderly actions taken by other agents who are not under his power in every detail. And if this is correct, it follows that even if some of them (actually only one: Balthazar) are rigorously subject to a predefined end, the characters in the play have at least an epicyclical sort of agency within the plot, a freedom to act as they choose even if those actions may be prestructured or put to unforeseen uses.27 This is evident in the motif of characters resisting or exceeding or escaping scripts written or demanded by others, which recurs repeatedly in the play and takes on particular intensity in the final act with the ironic murder of those who submit to a script they don’t understand, Bel-Imperia’s script-violating suicide, the expansion of Revenge’s hit list, Hieronimo’s refusal (after voluntarily explaining everything) to explain anything on command. G.K. Hunter, one of the best readers of the play and its genre, adopts a needlessly totalizing view of these dynamics in his essay on “ironies of justice”: [T]he characters of the play . . . are not to be taken by the audience as the independent and self-willed individuals they suppose themselves to be, but in fact only as the puppets of a predetermined and omnicompetent justice that they (the characters) cannot see and never really understand. But we (watching the whole stage) must never lose sight of this piece of knowledge . . . Hieronimo, for all his devotion to the cause of justice, is as much a puppet of the play’s divine system of recompense as are the other characters in the action. He is stuck on the ironic pin of his own ignorance; we watch his struggles to keep the action at a legal and human level with involvement, with sympathy, but with assurance of their predestinate failure . . . The absorption of the human into the divine justice machine means the destruction of the human, and Hieronimo becomes the perfected instrument of Revenge only by becoming inhuman.28

This suggests a much more thorough sort of determinism than I believe the play actually exhibits. Such a formulation will have difficulty accounting for even unscripted or unexpected human action as anything much more than puppetry, and even a critic as capable as Hunter falls into distortion and overreading when operating under its terms. It seems clear, rather, that Hieronimo’s plot, like Revenge’s, and like Kyd’s, is working with some rather disorderly materials, and I take this to be part of the point: these difficulties are important to a proper understanding of the play. Hunter himself takes a different and more accurate view in a later essay on Seneca and English tragedy:

Hieronimo’s “Acting of Revenge”


[T]he revenge that takes place is wholly determined by the natural emotions of the characters: Revenge is given no direct relationship to Hieronimo, the hero and revenger . . . Kyd creates, in short, a gap between the supernatural concern in the play, and the more central matter, the individual lives, which exhibit that unexplained capacity to make free valid choices which is essential to a Christian view of the world and to modern drama.29

That the “capacity to make free valid choices” is “essential to a Christian view of the world” (or to a scripted drama) is not self-evident, and indeed such libertarianism runs counter to a considerable amount of Christian theology, but Hunter’s Seneca essay is right about this: the dynamics of The Spanish Tragedy are not the utterly determinist nightmare that he described in his earlier essay. Their divine intentions are determinist only in a supervisory, recuperative way that subordinates free actions to its ends – what we might call a determinism of ends and not means. We know the play’s world is determinist because Revenge’s first-act promise that Andrea will watch BelImperia murder Balthazar is in fact fulfilled in the final act, and Revenge’s breezy placidity in the interim assures us that that fulfillment is never really in doubt. But we also strongly suspect that this determinism is not comprehensive, because Revenge never discusses his methods, never directly or visibly influences the characters’ actions, and those actions are often emphatically erratic and unpredictable. Only twice does he allude to direct meddling. In 1.5, he assuages Andrea’s panic by assuring him that “I’ll turn their friendship into fell despite, / Their love to mortal hate,” and so forth, but as I argued earlier there is no indication that this has been the plan all along. And when he tells his protégé in 3.15 that “though I sleep, / Yet is my mood soliciting their souls,” far from being a ringing announcement of action, the import is so nebulous that we can almost feel Revenge evanescing into his allegorical function as a representation of a deep human tendency. In this respect, he can seem less a puppetmaster deity than a mythic distillation of the human.30 In the end, Kyd refuses to give us a comfortingly straightforward picture either way. His deities have effective foreordaining power, but not a total control over people and their actions, and this suggests that they have to improvise reactively and contingently in what I have called an agency of ends but not means. They’re also indecisive, somnolent, and rather mean. On the other hand, Kyd’s human characters appear to exercise real free will and agency, but those are subordinated to the larger plans of the gods, and thus people exercise an agency of means but not ends – or to put it another way, their ends are Revenge’s means, and this relationship may not be comprehensible or even perceptible from the


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perspective of the human. The play, that is, resists the determinism of a Chrysippus, or Calvin, or Mulryne, or the earlier Hunter – but it equally resists the libertarianism of a Pelagius or a Hamilton (or the later Hunter). Its exclusion of these options leads us necessarily to some kind of dynamic compatibilism, and while I do not wish to exactly claim that Kyd was a Thomist, one might well see the play’s structural dynamics of subordinated agency as resembling a blood-spattered and nonredemptive version of Aquinas, who argued that predestination does not impose necessity of such a kind that its effect is realized through necessity . . . It does not exclude the freedom of the will, but realizes its effects contingently by means of it . . . [and this is possible because] Providence does not suppress secondary causes, but achieves its effects through subordinating their operation to itself.31

We might press this line of thought one step further in a play in which many of the major human characters are, if anything, more mean and manipulative than the gods. They plot and kill on slim, dubious, or no pretexts, and Hieronimo as much as Lorenzo tends to pursue his ends with violence and excess – even when, as in the former case, in service of an arguably just cause. Per scelus semper tutum est sceleribus iter: human action is portrayed as something that tends toward proliferative corruption (something that Kyd’s contemporaries would have unblushingly labeled “sin”), and this may suggest that the subordination of their purposes is in fact a positively good thing, at least insofar as it puts them to a use other than unrestrainedly widening circles of destruction and “endless tragedy” on earth.32 Where this leads, eventually, is to the paradoxical conclusion that the divine will of Revenge, for all its consumptive violence, might actually play a beneficially limiting function on revenge in the hands of sinners – if not comprehensively and in practice, at least ultimately and in principle. In its allegorical function, Revenge embodies, prompts, and gratifies the deep human tendency to action and payback, but in its executive function it sets limits on that tendency, and these limits are both desirable and generative of meaning. An unkilled Lorenzo is an affront to our sense of justice and decency, a troubling emblem of unchecked human mischief; hence the value of having a Hieronimo to foreclose the horrifying possibility of unlimited and unpunished agency. But as commentators have long recognized, an unkilled Hieronimo then becomes in turn equally intolerable, particularly when there is no certain divine mandate for his excessive actions. Better, perhaps, to live under the teleological oversight of some transcendent agent – even one of dubious

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


ethics, even one that may require our destruction – in relation to which humanity might understand itself and its actions as meaningful, not only because they are free, but also because they are bounded, subordinate, and accountable. Ethically responsible agency, like a liquid, and indeed like the blood in which tragedy trades, depends for its purpose and shape precisely on its containment. After all, even Revenge answers to somebody.

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet Hieronimo’s inset play (and Kyd’s frame around the play within which it is performed) famously established metatheatrical consciousness as a core convention of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. But what do we take to be the central import of Soliman and Perseda? Is it about spectatorship, or performance, or playwriting, or just babylonical confusion? Are we most struck by the obliviousness of the performers as they act themselves to death, or of the onstage audience as it applauds the playing-out of its own real-life tragedy, or by the remarkable and inescapable contrivances of the play’s author, or by the complex rendering of poetic justice in recompense for prior acts? In complicating the boundaries between drama and reality, Kyd, and after him Shakespeare, appeal to an old tradition of the world-asstage. But what kind of world is the stage, and what kind of stage is the world? John E. Curran observes33 that the theatrum mundi trope, as far back as Seneca, could work in two very different directions: seeing the world as a theater, and human life as a play, might be taken as a metaphor for the importance of good performance and action, or it might be understood as the perfect figure for a deterministic universe in which we simply act out, puppetlike, pre-scripted lines and actions over which we have no real control. Since, in any culture with a belief in a transcendent divine, that divinity must almost necessarily be conceived as part of the structure of this metaphor, Curran suggests that one’s theology correlates quite closely to whether one understands the world-as-theater optimistically or pessimistically, and thus “the metaphor is helpful . . . in figuring a basic philosophical opposition – free will versus predestination, Neoplatonists versus Stoics, Renaissance humanists versus Calvinists” (106). Furthermore, and perhaps most interestingly of all, he goes on to argue that the position of the divine – quite literally, where God sits – varies according to one’s conceptualization of the metaphor. The optimistic view (which he associates with contingency and Catholicism) tends to think of God as spectator, eagerly waiting to see what the actors will do, and ready to applaud or boo


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them, reward or punish them, in proportionate response. The pessimistic view, on the other hand, which Curran associates with determinism and Protestantism, tends to see God primarily as playwright, always backstage but not particularly interested in the performance because it can contain no surprises. Drama, then, like life, can be seen as a contingent economy of merit and reward, or as an emblem of immutable fixity and predetermination, and in this latter view Curran perceives a further link to Puritan antitheatricalism: “among the ways actors were damnable was their implied attempt to escape God’s set arrangement, aspiring with their play-acting to a state other than that in which he had placed them” (114). Meanwhile, the former, optimistic view is seen in Hamlet’s notorious delay, which Curran sees as springing from a noble but hopeless desire to properly proportion his revenge to its causes,34 just as God proportionally responds to human choices and actions. This is a clever and quite fascinating argument, but seriously overpressed in Curran’s book, which depends heavily on a notion of Catholic and Protestant that is hopelessly polarized between Catholic optimism and Protestant gloom, between a humanist world of possibilities, vibrant with freedom and contingency, and a grim, machinelike world with only one possibility at every turn, a world that one doesn’t so much live in as resign oneself to. This inevitably requires some overschematizing, some unpersuasive stretching of evidence, and some highly counterintuitive reading.35 In Curran’s account, Hamlet begins the play as a hopeful Catholic humanist, but gets progressively crushed into a dark, pessimistic Calvinist who embraces the determined nature of his life and of the universe because he has no choice. Curran professes unbiased admiration of both Calvinism and Catholicism,36 and voluntarily self-identifies as a Methodist and thus objectively disinterested. Whether that conclusion is actually borne out in his book is doubtful, but the fact of his denominational affiliation in itself suggests why his binaries are unsustainable: Methodism is a predominantly Arminian form of Protestantism that stresses personal free will, action, and piety, and it arguably has its origins in the “Holy Club” that the Wesley brothers started at Oxford in 1729. That this earnest club, so reminiscent of how Pelagius started out, and the denomination that grew from it, arose in counterpoint to strong-form Calvinist determinism is a useful reminder of how conflicted and multivalent Protestantism – and for that matter, Catholicism also and Christianity generally – is and has been on these central questions. To suggest that Catholicism sees an exciting world of free play and limitless human potentialities, while Protestantism dourly allows zero room for either, and that these are effectively the only two

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


options, simply will not work, either as an account of Christian theology or as a way of understanding Hamlet. There is no question, however, that Hamlet is, among many other things, deeply concerned with the problematics of acting, in interlocking ways that Curran’s argument helps highlight. On one level, this is a play straightforwardly interested in theatrical acting, from the shop-talky discussions of theatrical companies to the metatheatrically investigative function of Hamlet’s Mousetrap. “Suit the action to the word,” he tells the actors in 3.2; when it comes to performance, “reform it altogether” and strike a proper mimetic balance between overacting and underacting. Stick to the script and avoid silly improvisation: “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” But acting is not only for the stage, and on a second, deeper level, the play is intensely concerned with the function of fictive performance in real life. Hamlet himself claims both an unrepresentable interior core of “that within which passeth show” (1.2.85) and a performed surface or social self necessarily comprised of the trappings, suits, sounds, behaviors, and “actions that a man might play” (1.2.76–86); the former is presumably the “true” self, and the latter a performed version of it that does not necessarily entail bad faith and is in any case unavoidable and perhaps necessary.37 But he also lays claim to an “antic disposition” (1.5.173) that he can put on at will to mystify his opponents, and for Shakespeare, the possibility of such dissimulation is never foreclosed (see Richard III, Lady Macbeth, etc.). And indeed, even given the general pervasiveness of this principle throughout his oeuvre, Hamlet is a play particularly saturated with falsely acting selves – not just Hamlet, but Claudius, Polonius, quite possibly Gertrude, and even the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – who are relentlessly investigating and probing one another to determine the truth or untruth of their postures. More importantly still, and more profoundly, Hamlet is a play about the moral, theological, psychological, political, ethical, and philosophical implications of willed action. Despite his promise to the Ghost that he will enact revenge with “wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” (1.5.29–30), all four of Hamlet’s major soliloquies concern themselves fundamentally with the difficulties and complications of taking action.38 In 1.2, he bemoans his inability to commit suicide. In 2.2, he uses the Player’s acted passion as an index of his own real-life cowardice and failure to avenge his father. In 3.1 he explains the passive suffering of life as a craven fear of death and its unknown aftermath that “puzzles the will” and causes it to “lose the name of action,” whether suicidal or heroic. In 4.4, the admirably reckless expedition of Fortinbras informs against the inaction of Hamlet, who does


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“not know / Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (–6). What is it that interposes between cause, will, strength, and means on one side, and action on the other? It is perhaps the central question of the play, and almost certainly the one that has driven the most critical speculation. Epistemological and evidentiary issues, perfectionism, laziness, an Oedipal complex, fear, excessive thinking or feeling or scrupling, insanity, politics, the graduate student’s melancholy – all these and more have been proposed as reasons why revenge exists not in the perfect tense of completion, but in the continuous deferral of “will.” As Shakespeare demonstrated in his sonnets and elsewhere, will can mean many things, and like the future tense in which it participates, will may or may not eventuate in present action. On the complex relation of will and action, as in many others, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offer us an opportunity to calibrate our interpretive responses to this definitively complex play.39 When we first meet them in 2.2, Claudius begins by apologizing that “The need we have to use you did provoke / Our hasty sending” (2.2.3–4), implying necessity and instrumentality, but then “entreats” them (2.2.10) to undertake the proposed mission. Gertrude expands on the voluntarism implied in this: If it will please you To show us so much gentry and good will As to expend your time with us a while For the supply and profit of our hope, Your visitation shall receive such thanks As fits a king’s remembrance.


From the opening “if” of that sentence, all seems to be contingent on the courtiers: their pleasure, their breeding and character, their good will, their consent. The royal role is correspondingly reduced to that of hopeful supplicant before, and after the grateful rewarder, of these autonomous actors on whose will all depends. Rosencrantz immediately notes the incongruity in this, and the actual power relations that lie behind the rhetoric. Both Your Majesties Might, by the sovereign power you have of us, Put your dread pleasures more into command Than to entreaty.


Though his use of “of” is interesting (why not “o’er”?), and perhaps should give us pause, Rosencrantz’s general point is clear: there is something performatively fictional about the monarchs’ pleading. Before that can be

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


acknowledged, however, Guildenstern jumps in, and with a quickness that suggests the continuation of a sentence, the completion of a thought. But we both obey, And here give up ourselves in the full bent To lay our service freely at your feet To be commanded.


This may be not so much completion (unless he has picked up on his friend’s “of”) as transformation and recuperation; Guildenstern has, beginning with the pivotal “but,” almost entirely reversed the thrust of Rosencrantz’s lines. Whereas the latter was deferentially acknowledging the absolute (if rhetorically masked) control of the royal external agents, the former reasserts the free agency of himself and his companion. Their service is a choice freely made, as is their consent, their obedience, and indeed their very commandability; we, and only we, can “give up ourselves . . . to be commanded.” This might be delusional nonsense, of course – the king can command them whether they like it or not – or pure rhetoric on both ends, but Rosencrantz’s “of” and Hamlet’s “election” (5.2.66) might be read as indicative of political bidirectionality. Hamlet’s first interrogation of the pair later in 2.2, however, suggests otherwise. After the initial pleasantries have been exchanged, his first order of business is to ascertain why they are there, to identify the relevant agents and objectives of their visit. “What make you at Elsinore? . . . Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal justly with me . . . You were sent for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour. I know the good King and Queen have sent for you . . . be even and direct with me whether you were sent for or no” (2.2.262–80). His befuddled old friends attempt to fend off his questions with lame counterquestions before giving up and admitting sheepishly that “My lord, we were sent for” (2.2.284). And this suggests the truth, possibly unrecognized until now, of the earlier exchange: they are objects, not subjects, and their wills are wholly subject to the greater will to which they submit.40 Their role in the remainder of the play will be primarily as objects that the play’s “mighty opposites” struggle for control of, until one of those greater wills prevails by destroying them. We will return to this shortly. But Hamlet does not wait for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to introduce the agency problem. The first act is aswirl with hints, fragments, and constitutive elements of it: sin, grace, action, inaction, will, submission, contingency, providence – in short, the problem of action’s possibilities,


Action: Revenge Tragedy

limitations, and consequences. In the very first scene, Horatio, the skeptic (Marcellus says he “will not let belief take hold of him”), is the one to confront the ghost, and the vocabulary he uses is worth noting. Speak to me. If there be any good thing to be done, That may to thee do ease and grace to me, Speak to me. If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, Oh speak!


Key terms sit in awkward tension here: good deeds and (consequent) grace, fate and its (paradoxical) avoidance through foreknowledge. These tensions alert us to the theological stakes of the play, and they cry out for resolution, but of course Horatio gets no answers. The vocabulary returns, and the questions are extended, in the following scene. The last lines spoken before Hamlet’s verbal entrance into the play are delivered by Claudius, who grants Laertes’ request for permission to return to France by saying, “Take thy fair hour, Laertes. Time be thine, / And thy best graces spend it at thy will” (1.2.62–3). By this he seems to express a desire that grace (or perhaps virtue) and will would be coincident in Laertes, and this is the hinge upon which our attention pivots to the sullen and peevish Hamlet, who expatiates on his loss and his inexpressibly singular emotional subjectivity. Claudius has had enough of this “impious stubbornness”; he sees Hamlet’s inconsolability as symptomatic of a defective will. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschooled; For what we know must be, and is as common As any the most vulgar thing to sense, Why should we in our peevish opposition Take it to heart? Fie, tis a fault to heaven, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd, whose common theme Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried From the first corpse till he that died today, “This must be so.”


If we can set aside what we know about Claudius and read the argument on its own terms, this is rather reasonable: refusal to accept what is, and has always been, and must be, and cannot be changed, suggests a will that

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


misunderstands its true relationship to necessity, to reason, to fathers, to the dead, to nature, and to God himself. Small wonder that he doesn’t think Hamlet is ready to return to school. And he is right, for his nephew-son not only isn’t in a studying frame of mind; he is suicidally inclined. Most of Hamlet’s first soliloquy will explain why this is so, but my interest here is in why he hasn’t done it. O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!


Hamlet wants to not exist, and it would be nice if this could happen gently and spontaneously. Since this is unlikely to happen to a healthy young man, however, the alternative is doing it oneself, but this door too is closed, God having forbidden it. Experience obviously shows that this decree doesn’t make self-slaughter impossible, it simply proscribes it, and the ongoing nature of Hamlet’s vital functions thus suggests that he is submissive to heaven in ways that Claudius may not have recognized. He has subdued his desire for death, voluntarily not acted on it, because he implicitly believes that his will (and its attendant desire for action) must be subordinate to that of God. His ensuing description of the world as an “unweeded garden . . . rank and gross” (135–6) evokes a postlapsarian anti-Eden, entirely (“merely”) corrupted by sin, which might explain his tacit conviction that his refractory will must bow to God’s when the two are not aligned. Laertes warns Ophelia in the next scene that Hamlet’s “will is not his own” (1.3.17). He means this in a political sense, of course, to say that Hamlet’s romantic desires are necessarily “circumscribed” by his obligations to Denmark. Nonetheless, the prince’s inclinations have now in short order been thrice denied, subjected to the wills of king, God, and people. In 1.4, Hamlet once again implies that depravity is central to this, because whatever virtues or achievements one may have, they are “oft” blotted out by the “one defect,” the “vicious mole of nature in them, / As in their birth,” the “dram of evil” (, 15, 8–9, 20 – the last being the usual emendation of Q2’s nonsensical “eale”) that contaminates all; for all of Hamlet’s efforts to particularize the “corruption” of human “virtues” and “grace,” this speech displays a countervailing emphasis on the widespread implications of constitutional sin. Hard upon this, the ghost appears, and Hamlet heads off after it, compelled by his “fate” (1.4.58) to obligate himself to another superior agency. This occasions a curious role-reversal for Horatio and Marcellus: Horatio, generally regarded in the play as a kind of independent and


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skeptical empiricist, closes the scene by asserting that “heaven will direct” the perplexing course of affairs, while Marcellus, who in 1.1 seemed quite submissive, now responds with a surprisingly assertive “Nay, let’s follow him” (1.4.68). This is what they in fact proceed to do, but the fact that Marcellus explicitly controverts Horatio’s assertion of faith in divine control (perhaps because he thinks it implies passivity) shows us yet again how important the relationship of divine and human agency will be to this play. All I want to note about the ensuing interview with the ghost, so thoroughly probed by critics, is the ghost’s emphasis on his having been “cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled, / No reck’ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.76–9). As is generally recognized, this is a rather Catholic ghost, understandably annoyed at having been deprived of several key sacraments and the opportunity to clear his books before dying, and currently suffering extra time in purgatorial distress as a result. But it is not clear that Hamlet shares his father’s characteristically Catholic sense of sins in the plural, as a remediable collection of infractions. His pronouncements in 1.2 and 1.4 exhibit a more Protestant emphasis on sin as a singular, radical, universal, inherited condition, and this will be reiterated in 3.1 when he assures Ophelia that “virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it,” and asks, “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”41 And he ends the ghost scene with both a recognition of the transcendent (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in [y]our philosophy” [1.5.168–9]) and a sense of unrefusable, if also unwanted, calling (“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” [1.5.189–90]). These combine to strongly articulate Hamlet’s deep conviction of a divine agent that created him with a specific purpose, that exerts itself on a sinful world by ordering human action toward its own predetermined ends, and to which he must not say no. Polonius’ relatively indulgent view of sin in 2.1, where he is willing to investigate his son’s behavior by having Reynaldo insinuate that Laertes indulges in gaming, drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, and drabbing, also indicates a venial sense of sin very different from Hamlet’s deep conviction of it. For Polonius, the abovementioned trespasses are merely “taints of liberty, / the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind” (2.1.33–4), not evidence of serious corruption that annihilates merit. For Hamlet, on the other hand, whatever marvelous things might be said about humans and their capacities, they are in the final analysis “arrant knaves, all,” a “quintessence of dust.”42 This basic

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


difference is recapitulated in 2.2 when Hamlet asks Polonius to “see the players well bestowed,” and Polonius responds that he “will use them according to their desert” – meaning, presumably, that he will provide for them appropriately in accordance with their social rank, or their behavior, or something of that nature. But Hamlet immediately turns a matter of courtesy and etiquette into a matter of theology. God’s bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity; the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. (2.2.508–11)

Hamlet’s analysis and argument here are thoroughly Augustinian, and indeed his redirection of Polonius’ unexceptionable agreement only makes sense in theological terms. They are founded on an explicitly universal sense of inherent sin (since Hamlet speaks of “every man” and the implicit answer to his rhetorical question is “nobody”), from which it follows that the earned “desert” of sin, for everyone, is punishment. On this principle, Hamlet recoils from the implications of contingent equity, and appeals instead to the inscrutable logic of grace. Honor, dignity, and merit properly belong only to the gratuitous giver of unearned favor, and they are not only preconditions of that giving, they augment themselves and the giver in the act.43 Now, since the logic of revenge is all about giving people what they deserve, a would-be revenger who mounts such a radical critique of equity is creating serious problems for himself. On the one hand, Hamlet understands himself to be “prompted to [his] revenge by heaven and hell” (2.2.562), but on the other, his understandings of sin and grace imply the powerful desirability of people not getting what they deserve. One logic demands balance and reciprocity in the name of justice, while the other inverts that into the gloriously unjust asymmetry of grace. The difficulty of this impasse is so great that even someone as brilliant as Hamlet can respond to it only with utter perplexity, and at this point in the play its profound dissonance complicates his efforts to do or understand anything. After witnessing a moving recitation which combines factual and fantasy elements of his own situation – a slaughtered husband/father, a properly grieving widow, and an avenging Pyrrhus who authoritatively minces his victim, but only after a moment of suspension in which he “like a neutral to his will and matter, / [Does] nothing” (2.2.461–2) – he finds the Player’s ability to “force his soul so to his own conceit” (2.2.530) not wondrous or exemplary, but diagnostically “monstrous” (2.2.528) in its comparative implications, such that Hamlet can only understand his own inability to act in terms of lowest cowardice and verbal whoredom. But we can also see him starting to


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untangle these theological dilemmas in this very speech. Hamlet had explicitly coupled heaven and hell in his instant resolution to seek swift and single-minded revenge (1.5.29–31, 1.5.92–104), and he still perceives a joint mandate in this scene (2.2.562), even after some of the dissonances between this and his foundational theological assumptions have begun to register. But by the end of this second soliloquy, even in the midst of his muddled and paralytic confusion, having presumably realized that heaven and hell are typically at odds with each other, he will devise a method to decouple them by determining whether revenge is a devilish theological trap (in which action is a violation of divine sovereignty, and a sin) or the very will of God. Until that clarification comes, however, Hamlet will continue to struggle with his unfulfilled death wish, the subject of his most famous speech, where he meditates on the relative merits of passive endurance and active opposition to the difficulties of life. As in his earlier speech, he desires death but is reluctant to do himself in. But whereas in the first act that reluctance derived directly from divine proscription, here it is fear, simultaneously more pronounced and more vague, that stops him: the “dread of something after death / . . . puzzles the will,” and “conscience does make cowards of us all,” and as a result suicide and other “enterprises . . . / lose the name of action” (3.1.80–90). Life is worse than death, but who knows, that nebulous “something after death” might be even worse than life. Is it the wrath of a disobeyed and usurped God – against someone who, as the gravedigger will later put it, “wilfully seeks [his] own salvation” (5.1.1–2) – that he fears, or simply the radical uncertainty of what goes on in the undiscovered country? The answer is so unclear that his invocation of conscience (equated, as it will be in 4.4, with cowardice) is somewhat jarring; in a speech that mentions neither God nor right and wrong, what has conscience to do with what he has been discussing? Quite possibly nothing, especially if it is indeed just euphemized pusillanimity, but it may nonetheless show us something important about Hamlet’s continuing, and unsuccessful, struggle to resolve or even properly name his conflicted understanding of action and inaction, and where his final obligations in fact lie. Critics have disagreed over what Hamlet actually learns from his Mousetrap, or indeed whether it gives him any decisive evidence of anything. But this may not matter at all, because he, whether rightly or wrongly, clearly thinks that it gives him what he needs to conclude with confidence that the ghost is trustworthy (“I’ll take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound!” [3.2.263–4]) and therefore not from hell but from heaven. This in turn resolves Hamlet’s internal conflicts to his own satisfaction, thus removing a central obstruction to decisive action. The alignment made possible by this

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


has immediate effects, visible in the ensuing exchanges with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius, which exhibit less madness than swagger; suddenly sure that he is on the right team, Hamlet plays with his opponents and appears ready to start killing them (“Now could I drink hot blood” [3.2.360]). That he does not do so in the very next scene is the result of an unforeseen consequence of his conclusions. Claudius’ anguished meditations on guilt, will, and repentance in 3.3 are of great interest in their own right. Though he tells himself that “inclination be as sharp as will” (3.3.39), it clearly is not; as he later tells us, he is simply unwilling to give up the benefits of his sin, and therefore, though he may feel bad about what he has done, and knows there will be consequences for it (in heaven “there is no shuffling, there the action lies / In his true nature” [3.3.61–2]), his will is not truly repentant but rather insistent on its continuation in sin. He wishes he could repent, knows he should pray, requests supernatural assistance (“Help, angels! Make assay”), and even forces his body into a position of confession and prayer – “Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, / Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe” (3.3.70–1) – but in the end concludes that his heart, and his will, are just not in it.44 Without divine intervention, Claudius’ “limèd soul” (3.3.68) cannot free itself. As Paul and Portia had recognized, knowing what one should do is often easy; to actually will and do it is an altogether more difficult matter.45 Hamlet famously misreads Claudius’ bodily posture as evidence of genuine penitence, and forbears on those grounds to kill him at this moment, but the terms in which he does so point us toward a prior, and more important, misreading. Since his own father, he reasons, was killed “grossly, full of bread” (3.3.80), and is now paying for that unpreparedness in purgatorial suffering, to kill Claudius “in the purging of his soul” and thus assure him a swift trip to heaven creates an appalling imbalance; and “am I then revenged? . . . No.” Hamlet concludes that “this is hire and salary, not revenge,” and resolves to postpone the murder until Claudius is similarly sin-burdened, then “trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, / And that his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.93–5). But as Hamlet himself says (3.3.75), “that would be scanned.” What is indicated, for example, by Hamlet’s dismay at his uncle’s apparent repentance? He will tell Gertrude in the next scene that “heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister” (3.4.157–9), suggesting that he acts in the service of God, but asking “am I then revenged?” in the present scene indicates that his real focus (like Hieronimo’s) is on himself, his grievance,


Action: Revenge Tragedy

his revenge. Hamlet may have gotten his “grounds more relative” in the court theater, thus convincing him that the ghost was from heaven, but this scene suggests that in his exultation he may have seriously overread his mandate and mistaken it as blanket authorization of his own desires and actions. In other words, 3.3 shows our protagonist acting as though he, not God, is setting the terms of revenge. Lest this seem a stretch, we should ask what sorts of judgment and desire are implied in his decision to delay the murder – not to spare his apparently repentant victim, but to ensure him maximal damage. If Hamlet is consciously attempting to serve God’s will rather than vice versa, and thinks he sees Claudius earnestly repenting in prayer, on what basis can he be dissatisfied? Presumably God’s ends would be fulfilled with the penitent and contrite heart that Psalm 51 promises He will not despise, and if they’re not, surely Hamlet is obligated to wait for further authorization from above before taking further action. Instead, and quite to the contrary, he proceeds on his own authority to usurp the absolute prerogative of God to judge and determine who will go where after death. Even Hieronimo had not set his sights so decisively on eternal punishment (though Andrea was happy enough to pick up the slack) and there are at least two further reasons to think that the play seems to want us to be troubled by it here. First, it violates every logic of justice the play has offered up for consideration. Not only does it throw the generous asymmetry of grace under the metaphysical bus, it also transgresses the symmetrical, compensatory, book-balancing ideal of revenge by wildly exceeding its cause. We have evidence and no doubt that Hamlet Sr. is suffering, but his is a clearly purgatorial suffering, “for a certain term” (1.5.10) until his crimes are purged, after which he will be eligible for heavenly bliss. Hamlet’s desired payback exceeds this in an absolute way, and his usurpation of divine will is not limited to preventing God from letting Claudius directly into heaven; he also wants to take away God’s option of sending Claudius to purgatory. By specifying that he wants his uncle’s soul to be “as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes,” the prince is clear that he is pursuing his own desire for absolute rather than relative, hellish rather than purgatorial, and eternal rather than temporal, suffering and revenge. Samuel Johnson found this speech “too horrible to be read or to be uttered”: by misconstruing the nature of his relationship to God, Hamlet has ended up with an ugly God-complex, and an alarmingly graceless one at that.46 It threatens to be the worst of all possible worlds: soteriological determinism and rigorous justice without the slightest hint of the grace that for Paul and Augustine and Calvin made it all worthwhile.

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


The profoundly problematic nature of this – and this is my second reason – is confirmed and amplified by its replication in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I have suggested that the play contains little or no evidence that they are the “adders fanged” ( that Hamlet considers them to be; they are perfectly readable as well-meaning fellows earnestly hoping to help their friend and serve their king. But to him, they are enemies, and this shaky assumption is followed through with what are perhaps the most casual slaughters of the play: when Hamlet gets hold of their commission to the king of England, he rewrites it to order that the bearers should be “put to sudden death, / Not shriving time allowed” (5.2.47–8). The offhandedness of that last phrase belies its breathtaking ferocity, for what Hamlet is contriving is not just the death of his former friends, but their damnation.47 That this is now a pattern, and in this case one with no discernible proportionate cause other than Hamlet’s resentment (perhaps he assumes that they are aware of, and complicit in, the contents of the commission they bear, but such treachery is not factually established in the play), should make us worried – as might his blithe assertion that even in the details of this plot “was heaven ordinant” (5.2.49). Even Horatio, I think, is somewhat taken aback by all of this, and at this point can only muster a terse “So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to’t” (5.2.57), but Hamlet responds dismissively by saying “they are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow.” When one sees one’s actions as ordained by heaven – or worse yet, when one assumes that heaven will necessarily endorse whatever one does – such considerations needn’t be overly troubling. This is without question a troubling facet of Hamlet’s character,48 and perhaps a caution about the grave potential danger of a misconstrued sense of commission or election. When one is convinced that God is on their side, but misunderstands who is supposed to be aligning with whom, there may literally be no limit to the horrors that the resulting sense of superagency can smugly perpetrate. This kind of failure, of course, is a version of exactly the kind of dangerous solipsism and pride that Augustinianism tried so hard to counter: the overconfidence in one’s capacities for judgment, action, and righteousness that leads so smoothly to the belief that God must think like I do. As Luther and others proclaimed, however, He does not; that’s the point, and why grace is necessary. But all is not lost here. It is important to recognize Hamlet’s misconstruals and sometimes-vicious failures, and to consider what those might mean, but if we want to fully understand the complexity of the play’s discourses of agency, it is equally important to recognize the ways in which


Action: Revenge Tragedy

his theological processes are more legitimately empowering. Hamlet might be right or wrong about the divine sanction of his actions, but that alignment itself, especially after its fifth-act adjustment, is precisely what enables him to finally take action. Joshua Scodel has argued that the play’s arc is that of Hamlet’s development of the moral freedom needed to ground action, and that readings which exaggerate or deny the autonomy of this richly interior and thoroughly indebted character fail to understand the play properly. “Neither Holbrook’s characterization of Hamlet as a ‘modern’ free individual,” Scodel argues, “nor historicists’ denial that Hamlet is a ‘post-Kantian autonomous subject’ (Fitzmaurice, 156) endowed with ‘self-determining autonomy’ (de Grazia, 4) fully engages with the play’s and its protagonist’s distinctively Renaissance exploration of freedom.”49 Rather, the protagonist transcends his doubts and passivity by constructing a “highly individual sense of freedom” (164) out of Stoic and Christian principles, and this is what allows him to act, revenge to happen, and the play to end. Throughout the play, Scodel perceptively contends, Hamlet’s “freedom with respect to other people is bound up with his perceived relation to suprahuman forces (God, the Ghost) and his shifting internal states” (174). This is a learned and often persuasive argument, but Scodel’s discussion of Hamlet’s turn to Christianity near the end of the play blurs some important distinctions. Considering Hamlet’s famous account to Horatio in Act 5 Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly – And praised be rashness for it: let us know Our indiscretion sometime serves us well When our dear [Q2 deep] plots do pall [Q2 fall] – and that should teach [Q2 learn] us There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will –


Scodel argues that Hamlet has “freed himself from his psychomachia and resultant paralysis by taking impulsive action,” and “avers that our rash impulses are guided, beyond our willed efforts, by ‘a divinity.’ For him, rashness and divine influence have become (more or less) one, and trust in both sets him free” (193, 195). In this account, it is the rashness of that unexplained irrational “indiscretion,” acting as a kind of Epicurean swerving atom, that gives rise to free action; both the corresponding divinity, and the difference between them, are blurred.50 While the syncretic nature

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


of Scodel’s argument is appealing, and helps incorporate multiple factors into the perennial mystery of Hamlet’s turn, his (I think inadvertent) muting of the play’s religious discourse here is something of a disservice. Yes, Hamlet does praise his own rashness, but his point here is not to be its encomiast but to share its lesson: that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Rashness is not “one” with divinity, though the latter may use the former when we founder on our own premeditated obstacles, and it is emphatically the latter that is the real object of Hamlet’s newfound appreciation. Hamlet describes his impulsive indiscretion as either inspired by divinity or shaped by it after the fact, and both of those actions are the antitheses of “deep plots” which he can plan and control – which, that is, depend on an assumption of autonomous executive self-supervision. But his final conclusion is that it is divinity, not planned or spontaneous human action, that in fact plays that executive function. Only this reading is really consonant with Hamlet’s subsequent assertion that “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.157–8), an allusion to Christ’s words in Matthew 10: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without [the will of] your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” This model, in which even the most trivial of events are causally subsumed into the universal will of a scrupulously caring deity, emblematizes Hamlet’s realignment as a newly faithful agent of “special providence.” The logic of this is important enough to warrant further explication. Hamlet’s rashness is in effect what releases him from his deep and “dear plots,” from those organized executions of will and desire that emanate from rationally coherent subjects with what we designate as “character,” and that in his case have generated what threatens to be an interminable process of epistemological and moral deliberation (wonderfully described by Coleridge as “the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet’s mind”). This process is Hamlet’s defining trait, though he repeatedly decries its obstruction of the action that he claims to really want. Even after the supposedly definitive evidence produced by the Mousetrap, Hamlet finds reasons not to act against Claudius or Gertrude, and one might well wonder if (or on what basis) he would have taken action in the fifth act had not Laertes’ poisoned rapier conveniently foreshortened his life. But readers have long sensed that the Hamlet of Act 5 is indeed different from the preceding Hamlet: he is less anxious and self-recriminating, more sanguine and self-assured – and with


Action: Revenge Tragedy

his newfound “readiness” (5.2.160) he does indeed, whatever the reason, finally take action. A great deal of ink has been devoted to ascertaining what has caused this: the Mousetrap, the confrontation with Gertrude, the death of Ophelia, his narrow escapes at sea, some graveyard epiphany, and so forth. I think, though, that the cause is less important (and more speculative) than the conclusion that is evident in the above-quoted lines. Scodel is right to draw our attention to Hamlet’s “indiscretion,” and while again I do not think that it and divinity are “one,” they are similar in their contradistinction from Hamlet’s thinking, willing self, the tortured consciousness that attempts to account for all things and is thereby indefinitely hindered from taking action and accomplishing its desired goal. Rashness is acting without thinking, without the constraints of rationally ordered agency, and in this sense it aligns with belief in a transcendent divinity that trumps that principle of subjectively willed action (our “dear plots”).51 Hamlet is not celebrating impulsivity for its own sake, but for its exposure of the limits and flaws of his faith in his own deep and/or dear plotting, and the kinds of agential assumptions that underlay it – and ultimately, for the properly subordinated relation to the divine that this realization makes possible.52 It is this humbling recognition that reconfigures his sense of relationship to the divine, and several important things happen to, and within, Hamlet’s outlook because of it. One is that Hamlet now sees God as saving, by way of his providential arrangement: as he recounts the circumstances of his narrow escape from death, he marvels to Horatio that “even in” his chance possession of his father’s signet ring “was heaven ordinant” (5.2.49). (The word ordinant asserts both the comprehensiveness and the purposefulness of divine action. Norton glosses it as “guiding,” but this is an arbitrary weakening of a word that suggests ordering, decree, even predestination; what Hamlet is saying is that God, not he, has arranged everything for His larger purposes.) Consequently, God becomes a force to be obeyed with “readiness” (5.2.160) rather than resisted or appropriated (though I do not claim that Hamlet himself gets this completely right), and this in turn paradoxically makes action more possible and meaningful.53 In previous acts Hamlet had thought of God as an unwanted commissioner, a frightening judge, a forbidding obstruction to desired oblivion, then a rubber-stamp for his own desires; in the fifth, divinity becomes – contrary to the “only nominal confidence” in divine goodness discerned by Sinfield, or Curran’s dead-eyed submission to “unmitigated determinism” and meaninglessness54 – a saving and comforting ally to which he is at last able to entrust and subordinate his own actions. As disorganized resistance and tension give way to more composed action

Finding the Name of Action in Hamlet


upon Hamlet’s new understanding, the action of obedience or cooperation with a transcendent and good deity proves more productive than the pseudoaction of paralytic self-assertion.55 Hamlet achieves Scodel’s “moral freedom” and ability to act only by renouncing his intractable autonomy, and situating his agency within that of God rather than vice versa; for him, this surrender means not defeat but peace and effective action. This paradoxically inverse relationship between assertion and action is crucial to the play, and its relationship to contemporary theological problems is quite explicit. The notoriously problematic First Quarto has Hamlet say, “There’s a predestinate providence in the fall of a sparrow,” but we should not let Q1’s problems obscure what this reading undoubtedly demonstrates: that someone – a distracted compositor, a careless amanuensis, a somewhat muddled actor, or for all we know Shakespeare himself – saw this part of this play as intimately bound up with the agential problems currently vexing the Church of England and indeed European Christianity generally.56 The 1595 Lambeth Articles, for example, sought to institute a harshly Calvinist gloss on the Thirty-Nine Articles’ more modest and ambiguous statements on soteriological agency, and were pushed back against by the moderating likes of Hooker, Andrewes, and Elizabeth herself; they never gained official doctrinal force, and are largely remembered for their austerity and controversy. But Calvin himself had argued passionately that the central temporal consequence of proper belief in God’s fully-saturated providence was not conflict or anxiety but peace: “while the turbulent state of the world deprives us of our judgment, God, by the pure light of his own righteousness and wisdom, regulates all those commotions in the most exact order, and directs them to their proper end . . . there is nothing gratuitously contingent . . . [The Christian] will not doubt that the particular providence of God is watchful for his preservation, never permitting any event which it will not overrule for his advantage and safety.”57 “The necessary consequences of this knowledge,” he continues, are “gratitude in prosperity, patience in adversity, and a wonderful security respecting the future” (1.17.7); it will “support our minds with a good hope, that without hesitation we may securely and magnanimously despise all the dangers which surround us” (1.17.9). Absolute trust in God’s sovereign dispensation is an “inestimable felicity” (1.17.10), in which the believer is relieved and delivered not only from the extreme anxiety and dread with which he was previously oppressed, but also from all care. For, as he justly dreads fortune, so he ventures securely to commit himself to God. This,


Action: Revenge Tragedy I say, is his consolation, to apprehend that his heavenly Father restrains all things by his power, governs all things by his will, and regulates all things by his wisdom, in such a manner, that nothing can happen but by his appointment. (1.17.11)

In citing Calvin at length here it is not at all my intention to claim Hamlet or Shakespeare specifically as his acolytes; like the former, the latter has been variously described as Calvinist and Arminian and Catholic, and I have received no special revelation on this matter. But neither, I think, is or was a Pelagian, and I quote Calvin at length simply as a clear and influential contemporary exponent of the benefits that can accrue to belief in a sovereign and strongly determinist God. The peace and confidence that Calvin describes here are close relatives of those that suffuse Hamlet in the play’s final scene. Having exchanged augury and necromancy (and autonomy) for “special providence,” Hamlet brushes off Horatio’s misgivings and exhortations against taking action: “the readiness is all . . . Let be” (5.2.160–1). Of course, we are not obligated to regard the action that results as good or even acceptable, let alone the will of the Almighty; while the play has structurally provoked and satisfied our desire for the catastrophe, it has also, more than any of its ilk, prompted us to think deeply and critically about it. But if any principle has freed Hamlet to take action, it is that of non-autonomy, his conscious affirmation that his will is indeed, albeit in a different sense than Laertes recognized, not his own. The history of literary criticism on Hamlet has offered many ways in which this might be the case, seeing Hamlet as a variously fragmented/ conflicted/decentered/alienated/heteronomous self of a Victorian/Freudian/ modern/postmodern/Marxist/poststructuralist sort, and I do not seek here to disprove any of them; the play’s richness and ambiguity, after all, encourage such speculations. But those efforts have in recent decades significantly obscured the older, explicitly religious reading which the play articulates quite clearly, and which I have pursued and developed here because it is important that we not overlook or forget it.58 Unquestionably, Hamlet’s agential subjectivity, and its relationship to the divine, are complex and unstable things in this play, and they are in large measure responsible for its anguished dilation. But his lost name of action, his ability to actually act on his will, is finally, and only, found in a realization that dovetails with the active resolution of the play.59 Only when Hamlet becomes convinced that his will and actions are framed by a transcendent power, that his presumed autonomy has generated uncertainty that precisely obstructs and prevents action, that

Giovanni’s Fate


divinity will always prevail over human rough-hewing – that, in short, to appropriate Johnson’s critically intended phrase, Hamlet is “rather an instrument than an agent” – does he become capable of the effective action (and peace) that had so persistently eluded his impatient grasp.

Giovanni’s Fate John Ford’s incest/revenge tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (published 1633) exhibits an almost exactly opposite dynamic, and does so in ways that recall us to Kyd and especially Marlowe. Unlike the fifth-act Hamlet, but like Hieronimo, and very much like Faustus, Ford’s Giovanni regards the divine as precisely what stands in the way of realizing one’s desires in action – as, that is, that which must be marginalized, renounced, or conquered if one’s volitions are to be enacted and desires fulfilled. Giovanni accordingly conceives his relation to God not as subordination or cooperation, but as denial (in this sense he outgoes even Faustus), displacement, and dominion. The play opens with the Friar reproving Giovanni for what has clearly been some dangerously frank ultrahumanist speculation, and warning him against its implicit “devilish atheism”: “heaven admits no jest,” he admonishes his charge, and “he thou talk’st of is above the sun.”60 After Giovanni proceeds to argue that the gods themselves should worship the object of his desire, the Friar laments that “thou art lost! / . . . For thou hast moved a Majesty above / With thy unranged almost blasphemy / . . . the fruits of all my hopes / Are lost in thee, as thou art in thyself” (1.1.35, 1.1.44–5, 1.1.55–6). Having diagnosed his pupil’s root problem as damnably narcissistic solipsism, he advises him to “beg heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust / That rots thy soul; acknowledge what thou art, / A wretch, a worm, a nothing” (1.1.74–6). His prescribed remedy for excessive self-regard and its effects (lust, incest, idolatry, blasphemy, atheism) is a correspondingly radical affirmation of one’s utter depravity and subjection to God. This of course fails miserably. After undertaking the Friar’s program of contrition, Giovanni concludes that “I find all these but dreams and old men’s tales / To fright unsteady youth; I’m still the same. / Or I must speak, or burst; ‘tis not, I know, / My lust, but ‘tis my fate that leads me on” (1.2.157–60). Unable or unwilling to shape his desires to divine law, he concludes that the latter is invalid, and that those desires themselves are the reliable constant in which his real subjectivity is grounded (“I’m still the same”). At this point he still sets this subjectivity in the context of an alternative larger force of nontheological fate that warrants his longings as


Action: Revenge Tragedy

necessity, but that turns out to be a transitional step of realignment, and will change as his sense of self-authorization grows. Once he and Annabella have consummated their family affair, Giovanni dismisses the cultural weight affixed to the intact hymen because he has found that “being lost, ‘tis nothing, / And you are still the same” (2.1.11–12). Once again the rhetorics of desire, nondifference, and selfhood intersect: so long as the self remains central and constant (and in this case ideally contained within the enclosure of an endogamous relationship), its desires are self-validating, and external considerations of social, moral, or transcendent judgment fall away. The security and pleasure of this arrangement cause Giovanni to exult that “I envy not the mightiest man alive, / But hold myself in being king of thee / More great than were I king of all the world” (2.1.18–20). Note how difference and hierarchy re-emerge here: no longer a prospective victim of divine vengeance, or passive object of fate, or nearly indistinguishable likeness and partner of his sister, his liberated desire now asserts mastery and dominion over her.61 This inversion continues and extends in the third act: when Soranzo asks Annabella who she will love, she answers, “That’s as the Fates infer,” and the eavesdropping Giovanni whispers “Of those I’m regent now” (3.2.19–20). In ancient myth, Homer and Hesiod describe the Fates as subject only to the power of Zeus; Aeschylus and Ovid say that even the Olympian gods cannot break the iron decrees of the Moirae; Plato calls them the daughters of Ananke, the primeval goddess of inevitability, necessity, and compulsion.62 To call oneself their regent is to stake a very high claim indeed, an absolute causal agency equivalent or superior to that of the divine: Giovanni now sees himself as a god of gods, an implacable and unstoppable force of necessity. The Friar, unsurprisingly, combats this way of thinking throughout the play, encouraging his pupil to repent of his sin, appeal to the grace of God, and pursue more appropriate (i.e., circumscribed) actions. Giovanni proves quite immune to these efforts, but his necessary co-partner and better half is a different story. When Annabella repents and their selfcontained world fissures, her brother berates her in megalomaniacal terms. What danger’s half so great as thy revolt? Thou art a faithless sister . . . . . . Why, I hold fate Clasped in my fist, and could command the course Of time’s eternal motion, hadst thou been One thought more steady than an ebbing sea. (5.5.8–9, 5.5.11–14)

Giovanni’s Fate


Giovanni’s narcissistic personality disorder, as the current diagnostic nomenclature has it, unfolds explosively from here as the play transforms into a revenge tragedy. When he moments later stabs Annabella – “this act / Which I most glory in” (5.5.90–1) – he announces that “Revenge is mine” (5.5.87), and he will repeat the phrase after stabbing Soranzo in the following scene (5.6.74). In between, he spoils the banquet by entering with her heart on his dagger and announcing that “Fate, or all the powers / That guide the motions of immortal souls, / Could not prevent me” (5.6.12–14). In addition to being a perverse enactment of justice upon his perceived betrayers, this is a doubly ironic assertion and denial. It asserts the impotence of the fate that he had previously seen as controlling his desires and actions, and his own illimitable agency in the present. And it does the same with regard to the soul-influencing “powers,” like God, implicitly acknowledging their existence (which he had previously rejected) only to assert his own superiority. Early in the play, Giovanni attempted and failed to submit his will to God’s, then reinterpreted his failure as submission, not to the God he disbelieved in but to an impersonal fate; at the end, he sees himself as having transcended both in an absolute agency that self-authorizes both incest and revenge.63 Florio, in confused horror, asks his son, “Why, madman, art thyself?” (5.6.34), and the question is apt: Giovanni is, for better or worse, nothing but himself. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, he has kicked earth and heaven to pieces, leaving no principle by which to appeal to him except his exalted and/or degraded self. He describes himself as “the oracle of truth” (5.6.52), and when asked if he expects to get away with his crime, he answers “Yes, I tell thee, yes; / For in my fists I bear the twists of life” (5.6.70–1). This turns out to be incorrect, but readers and critics of Ford’s play have long disagreed on how to regard Giovanni’s exploits: in pursuing his incestuous desires, dismissing the obstacles in his way, and destroying all involved when things break down, has he done something unimaginably horrendous, or something ironically and perversely admirable? Giovanni’s murderous egomania is obviously problematic, but such energetic self-assertion is at least dramatically preferable to the almost characterless malleability of Philotis, and while Christianity’s teachings are responsibly articulated by the Friar, the religion is officially represented by the notoriously corrupt Cardinal who closes the play with a dubious judgment. Like Doctor Faustus, ‘Tis Pity lends itself to contrary readings (and resists oversimple ones), and here too I do not seek to resolve such conflicts; it is a deeply complex play that may be variously understood to condemn or celebrate the transgression at its heart.


Action: Revenge Tragedy

My purpose in this brief discussion is simply to recognize that even Giovanni, in pursuit of an unconstrained agency that is in some respects even more radical than Faustus’, operates in the context of the divinity he explicitly denies. His double proclamation that “revenge is mine” recalls us to Hieronimo’s ambiguous “Vindicta mihi,” and beyond that to the lessambiguous biblical claim on God’s behalf. Unlike Hamlet, who wrestles directly with the theological stakes of revenge and finally concludes that personal action is possible only when subordinated to God’s providential will, Giovanni finds it necessary to repudiate that divine will in order to secure his own and take the action he desires. But even in rejecting the claims and existence of God, and claiming godlike agency for himself, he ironically demonstrates, like his dramatic predecessors, the unavoidably theological nature and implications of theorized human action.

chapter 4

Struggle: Donne

In God we put our trust, and kept our powder dry.

1st Massachusetts Sharpshooters monument, Gettysburg

Agency and/or Assurance Hamlet’s insistent desire for “grounds more relative” as a prerequisite for action highlights the intimate bonds between epistemology and agency: very often, we find that relatively strong forms of knowledge or belief are necessary preconditions of serious action. Hamlet apparently cannot act until he has convincing evidence that things are as he thinks they are, but I have argued that this is at least partially a misunderstanding on his part: what he most acutely lacks is not a knowledge of empirical facts, but a confident belief in the proper relation of human and divine agency. This conviction is not in any sense above question, and indeed the toxicity and destructiveness that we have witnessed in the preceding incarnations of it – Faustus, Hieronimo, Hamlet, Giovanni – indicate that the importance and difficulty of getting this matter right is a contentiously central interest of these plays. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was first published in 1633, as were two other even more important literary books: Donne’s Poems and Herbert’s The Temple. Though this coincidence is obviously just that, the constellation of these texts is nonetheless somewhat astonishing: how did the zeitgeist of one year in one country stimulate the publication of three such radically different volumes? But this chapter will argue that, as incompatible as this threesome might seem, these authors are actually all interested in very much the same questions. How is the human capacity for meaningful action related to divine agency? Is the latter an obstacle to, or a necessary precondition for, the former? That is, how does one’s agential sense of self require one to regard the absolute, transcendent agency of God? Faustus’ answer to this last question, and Giovanni’s, is that the notion of divine oversight needs to be dismissed if one is to exercise full agency (though whether this is upheld as 147


Struggle: Donne

a good idea is a different matter altogether). Hieronimo too seeks to circumvent divinity and carve his own way, but the play in which he exists carefully situates his efforts within a transcendent containment structure. And Hamlet, though his road in this is not straight, finally concludes like Augustine and Luther that worthy action is only possible through subordination to the overarching, providential will and grace of God. George Herbert goes even further than Hamlet, and suggests in his poems that productive human volition is almost entirely generated – in a process of erasure and reinscription – by God’s sovereign will. In “The Holdfast,” for example, he succinctly narrates a journey of progressively deepening understanding not only as a movement from law to grace, but as a gradual annihilation of his own sense of agency. The sonnet begins with an assertive but abortive plan to achieve righteousness through his own efforts. I threat’ned to observe the strict decree Of my dear God with all my power and might. But I was told by one, it could not be; Yet I might trust in God to be my light.1

Though a desire for righteousness in the law of a beloved God seems likely to be a good thing, it is revealed from the start (tellingly, with only an “I” preceding its revelation in “threat’ned”) to be a fundamentally aggressive and antagonistic aspiration, grounded at least as much in love of the self, an assertion of first-person “power and might” reminiscent of Pelagius. An unnamed but apparently highly reliable “one” (Augustine, perhaps?) simply observes that this promise/threat holds no force because it is impossible; all the speaker’s power and might cannot fulfill the law, cannot begin to make him right with God on his own terms. It is unclear whether the apparently unexceptionable alternative offered in line 4 comes from the speaker or from “one,” but either way there is no Christian objection to trusting in God, right? The speaker accordingly decides, emphatically, in line 5 that “Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.” This appears to resolve the initial problem in a reassuringly orthodox way, but Herbert is not writing a five-line poem, and even here he finds a problem. The second “I” in this line is more than just a dialogic speech attribution: its reiterativeness – and it is not just the second “I” in this line, it is the eighth first-person singular pronoun in only five lines – suggests an uncorrectedly excessive focus on the self and its powers of action and possession. Even the speaker’s resolution to trust in God “alone” is framed as a first-person action, as something important that he can autonomously choose to do.

Agency and/or Assurance


His interlocutor, though, is having none of this. “Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his: / We must confess, that nothing is our own.” Even the act of faith is God’s doing, not ours. The speaker, as he did with “trust” in lines 4–6, seizes upon the proffered verb as something he can do: “Then I confess that he my succour is.” But this proposition too is rejected by his respondent, who says, “But to have nought is ours, not to confess / That we have nought” – which is to say that our helplessness is so total that we can add nothing to it. Even the mere recognition or naming of it, let alone any remedy for it, comes from God. The speaker, who has been doggedly trying to take and apply his interlocutor’s advice, is “amazed” and “troubled” at this, and, one suspects, rather annoyed, given the repeated theopedagogical traps that his conversational companion has set for him. The deeper horror, though, surely lies in having been stripped of the power to do anything at all, and this is only alleviated when a “friend” (whether this is the same person as “one,” and/or the friend from “Jordan (2)” and other poems, is unclear) reassures him “[t]hat all things were more ours by being his. / What Adam had, and forfeited for all, / Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.” The full-stop shift from the indirectly reported discourse of line 12 to the proverbial tone of the sonnet’s closing couplet may suggest that the couplet may not be the words of the “friend” but rather of the speaker himself, and if this is the case, his fear and struggle have been resolved into a very Lutheran-sounding2 sort of assurance: the burdens of my righteousness, and my salvation, were never in my corrupted hands to begin with, and thank God for that. They are, and have always been, in the infallible hands of Christ, and in those hands the human subject is simultaneously effaced and embraced. “The Holdfast” demonstrates a characteristic tension between struggle and assurance that we see throughout The Temple, a collection in which we see many poems that exhibit fear, suffering, anxiety, complaint, pain, resistance, impatience, even anger toward God. But there are very few that do not end in resolution and assurance, and this, I would suggest, is because, while Herbert is exquisitely candid about the struggles and conflicts of faith, those struggles take place within a relationship that is complicated but fundamentally understood. Herbert exhibits relatively little concern over his justification; it is the process of sanctification with which he struggles – and indeed a recollection of the former, and its complete ascription to God, is often the solution to the latter. The speaker of his poem “Assurance” keys this to a conceit of writing, and overcomes his initial doubt and fear by returning himself to God and retroactively denying his own agency:


Struggle: Donne . . . O most gracious Lord, If all the hope and comfort that I gather, Were from myself, I had not half a word, Not half a letter to oppose What is objected by my foes. But thou art my desert; And in this league, which now my foes invade, Thou art not only to perform thy part, But also mine; as when the league was made Thou didst at once thyself indite, And hold my hand, while I did write.


The self-tormented speaker finds peace only in remembering that his salvation is not of his own doing, and that indeed nothing important is really his except unearned love. His efforts at self-justification and self-assurance fail because they have no uncorrupted content; justification and assurance occur by the grace of God, and this in turn makes poetry possible. Herbert’s image of his writing hand gently enfolded in God’s is remarkable, as is his claim that in so doing God “didst at once thyself indite,” both author and reflexive object of Herbert’s spiritual state and poetry. Herbert arrives at such discipline and submission so frequently in The Temple that it may come to seem easy, but he also repeatedly goes out of his way to insist that it is not. The complicated dynamics of sanctification are achingly summed up in the lovely “Bitter-Sweet”: Ah my dear angry Lord, Since thou dost love, yet strike; Cast down, yet help afford; Sure I will do the like. I will complain, yet praise; I will bewail, approve: And all my sour-sweet days I will lament, and love.

Herbert lives, and suffers, and questions, and resists, and counterattacks, and fails, but his partner is a God of whose absolute goodness and love and power there is in the end no doubt in Herbert’s mind. This is why the poems tend so consistently toward return and resolution: God’s ways may be mysterious and even painful, but they are understood in the context of grace and the sinner’s radical need for it. As a result, The Temple offers a marvelously subtle record of a highly dynamic relationship, what Herbert himself (according to Walton) described as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have

Agency and/or Assurance


passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.”3 The human subject, the poems repeatedly insist, is the sinful, limited, dubious variable; God is absolute, omnipotent, perfect love. My flawed involvement in the post-justification process of sanctification is what makes it so fraught and difficult, but behind both phenomena is the perfect, unqualified benevolence of grace. The better one understands this – and Herbert always understands it, though he occasionally and momentarily wavers – and submits and surrenders wholly to the divine will, the more sure and free one becomes. The Temple as a whole bears frequent witness to the practical difficulties of understanding grace with submission and assurance, but for Herbert the truth underlying it is reassuringly simple: being a good Christian is hard, but God has justified me and will see it through. The question of assurance, however, is, like most theological problems, not simple. Its complexities begin in what appear to be conflicting biblical pronouncements on the relationship of salvation and confidence. Isaiah 32:17 says that “the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever,” and Paul famously asks the Romans to consider “If God be for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . I am persuaded that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:31, 8:35, 8:38–9) – an expression of complete confidence in the infallibility of grace. On the other hand, the very same Paul occasionally appears to admit a degree of uncertainty, a possibility of failure, regarding his salvation (I Cor. 4:4, 9:27; Philip 2:12), and Christ himself taught that A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7:18–23)

This passage encapsulates many of the problematics of assurance. It asserts an epistemologically straightforward correlation between outer manifestations and inner, spiritual state: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” But it also radically destabilizes that correlation by going on to suggest that those


Struggle: Donne

outer works may in fact not reliably indicate one’s salvation after all, and worse still, one’s inner conviction may not do so either. The “many” to whom Jesus refers, like Bunyan’s Ignorance, appear to be fully convinced of their own faith and election, and they have evidence that supports that on Jesus’ own prior terms, but they are cast away from the seat of judgment, flung to their great surprise from paradise to perdition. What the passage initially appears to be offering as an adequate mechanism for assessing others turns out to be radically insufficient even for assessing oneself.4 Given these paradoxes, and the indisputable – if regularly elided in Christian rhetoric and hymnody – epistemological distinction between empirically verifiable knowledge and unprovable faith, the “assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), on what basis is complete assurance even conceivable? Luther, by his own account, became an overachieving monk because of his intense desire for certainty regarding his salvation, but found that not even the full-time devotion of the cloister could provide it for him. This led to his eventual conclusion that even the best and most superdedicated human works do not save us even partially, and that total, sovereign, divine grace is the only thing that does. Several things follow from this monergism. Several would become established as fundamental points of Calvinism: if God’s will is absolute and efficacious, then it must be the case that grace is irresistible and irreversible. More directly to the point of the present chapter, the inscrutable arbitrariness of God’s electing choice, while for some a source of terror, is also paradoxically the central source of soteriological comfort, isolated and insulated from the sinful vagaries of human will and action.5 Because God’s will is eternal, effective, and unchanging, salvation is absolutely guaranteed to the elect. As Luther put it to Erasmus, “I should not wish to have free choice given to me,” because then “my conscience would never be assured and certain” that I had done enough; but with everything in God’s hands, “I am assured and certain” of my salvation and glory.6 Albrecht Dürer in turn described Luther as “the Christian man who has helped me emerge from such terrible fear.”7 And Calvin would go even further, suggesting that “no man is truly a believer, unless he be firmly persuaded, that God is a propitious and benevolent Father to him, and promise himself every thing from his goodness; unless he depend on the promises of the Divine benevolence to him, and feel an undoubted expectation of salvation.”8 In this way Protestant assurance functioned as a corollary of strongly Augustinian grace, a confidence that followed directly and proportionally from belief in God’s complete soteriological control. But not

Agency and/or Assurance


everyone asserted or linked the two as directly and confidently as Calvin did; while grace is a source of comfort for all Christians, as we have seen, Christians have long disagreed on the degree of that grace’s hegemony. The nonbinding and hyper-Calvinist Lambeth Articles of 1595 asserted that “A man truly faithful, that is, such a one who is endued with a justifying faith, is certain, with the full assurance of faith, of the remission of his sins and of his everlasting salvation by Christ,” but Hooker omitted this from his precis of them, and the 39 Articles contended more modestly that election was “full of sweete, pleasaunt, and vnspeakeable comfort.”9 Even the Calvinist 1646 Westminster Confession hedges a bit on the question of assurance, saying that “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in a state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”10 Assurance is not a sine qua non of election, but a kind of second blessing, given to some but not all. The Council of Trent was not just diffident but actively skeptical about assurance, proclaiming that “no one, so long as he lives in this mortal condition, ought to be so presumptuous about the hidden mystery of divine predestination as to determine with certainty that he is definitely among the number of the predestined; as if it were true either that the one justified cannot sin anymore or that, if he sins, he should promise himself an assured repentance. For without special revelation it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for Himself.”11 Canons 12–16 of the sixth session specifically attack assurance, except in special circumstances: XII. If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy that remits sins on account of Christ or that it is this confidence that justifies us, let him be anathema. XIII. If anyone says that, to attain the remission of sins, everyone must believe with certainty and without any hesitation based on his own weakness and lack of disposition that his sins are forgiven, let him be anathema. XIV. If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he believes with certainty that he is absolved and justified; or that no one is truly justified except he who believes he is justified and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone, let him be anathema. XV. If anyone says that a man who has been reborn and justified is bound by faith to believe that he is certainly among the number of the predestined, let him be anathema. XVI. If anyone says that he has absolute and infallible certitude that he will surely have the great gift of perseverance to the end, unless he has learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema.12


Struggle: Donne

While grace is what makes soteriological hope and confidence possible, Trent maintained, it does not and should not produce certainty or assurance. Unless accompanied by special revelation, “infallible certitude” (absoluta et infallibili certitudine) is a form of presumption and pride that forgets the fallibility of the human agents on whom grace, on this model, is at least somewhat contingent. Catholics and Protestants alike affirmed that in the work of salvation, divine grace was prior, primary, and indispensable, so pausing for a moment on the matter of assurance will enable us to see once again, and from a different angle, what separated them. Erasmus had proposed an infinitesimal but necessary human contribution to salvation – let’s say 1 percent for the sake of argument – but even such a miniscule effort had very considerable implications. While the difference between 1 percent and 2 percent, or even 10 percent or 49 percent, is negligible (perhaps 51 percent is the threshold of Pelagianism), the difference between 1 percent and zero was enough to trigger the Reformation. Catholics, and later non-Calvinist Protestants, argued that responsibility, moral accountability, divine justice, and the power to influence one’s eternal fate required some human agency, however small it might be. But the costs of that agency include the loss of certainty and the possibility of self-caused soteriological disaster; contingency is empowering, but it is also inherently risky. The Tridentine pronouncements on this matter assert not only that assurance can be erroneous (after all, heretics and schismatics are fully convinced of their rightness13), and that, absent special revelation, one can never absolutely know that one is saved, but more fundamentally that synergism necessarily entails the possibility of radical failure. So whereas Catholics and Arminians argued that our freedom means that we can in fact fail to hold up our end, Luther and Calvin contended that we have no end to hold up, Adam and Eve having thrown it away, and therefore it’s all grace, all the way. Only this, the Reformers maintained, is a reliable basis of true comfort and peace, because the unstable commixture of contingency and sin would make self-earned damnation a prohibitive likelihood if not a mortal certainty. But while many Protestants found this monergistic doctrine deeply satisfying,14 at least some of them joined Catholics in regarding it as a terrifying and appalling generator of passivity and despair.15 Among them was John Donne, whose religious poetry frequently struggles with fairly radical versions of doubt and fear that seem the antitheses of assurance. Donne, in many of his poetic and devotional writings, was

Agency and/or Assurance


neither sure nor submissive. His poetry, like Herbert’s, exhibits moments of orthodox submission and assurance, and moments of doubt and resistance. But as a recent student of mine succinctly put it, “Herbert worries about doing too much, and Donne worries about doing too little.”16 Whereas Herbert’s rebellious moments punctuate a general mood of faithful submission, and are almost always recuperated, Donne’s critical doubt and self-assertion are the general mood, punctuated by articulations of submission that do not seem to last (though they are perhaps no less sincere for that). These dynamics are clearly visible in the Holy Sonnets, which often depict these conflicts at their agential roots, and frame them as struggles for control. Donne’s religious poetry, like the complicated man himself, has proven particularly difficult for critics to pin down theologically, and indeed the past half-century of criticism has been framed by two enormously influential and contradictory views: Louis Martz (and, almost contemporaneously, Helen Gardner) read the Holy Sonnets and other poems as demonstrable embodiments of Catholicism’s Ignatian meditative tradition, while Barbara Lewalski subsequently argued to the contrary that they are “stark, dramatic, Pauline . . . Protestant exercises of self-analysis.”17 Whatever the virtues of such analyses, the confessional polarity behind them has tended to drive many readings to label and claim Donne’s work (and often Donne himself) in over-schematic ways that work against nuance and balance. As I suggested in previous chapters, the most illuminating readings are often those that deal in dynamic conflict rather than static identity, and here again the problematics of agency can take us considerably deeper than party affiliation. In a 1971 article that both partakes of this binary and sees interestingly past it, Patrick Grant contended that “there is often something uncertain, even flawed, in the quality of the total experience which the Holy Sonnets offer. There is perhaps too much of the showy and flamboyant sinner, too much effort behind the humility which only makes us acutely aware of the assertive and sinful self when what the poem wants to do is suppress it.”18 Though Grant offers this as a critique, a flaw in the Augustinianness of Donne’s commitments, it is more useful simply as a recognition of the “assertive self” in the sonnets. Looked at from one kind of angle (say, Calvinism), the self that asserts itself and its own claims to God is indeed inherently sinful, but this is not the only angle available, and indeed a number of critics have discussed the tensions between Catholic Donne and Protestant Donne, or Calvinist Donne and Arminian Donne, and attempted to trace some resolution of them – typically by settling on one term or the other as dominant. Both the greatness and the pathos of Donne, however, derive from the


Struggle: Donne

enormous difficulty he had in resolving these sorts of problems. Whether his attitude toward Calvinism was one of belief, desire, obligation, or burden, he appears to have been constitutionally incapable of the self-resignation implied in it, the renunciation of autonomy and surrender of agency to God that it required, and as a result we see little Herbertian peace in the Holy Sonnets.19 Richard Strier’s 1989 article “John Donne Awry and Squint” is perhaps still the single best essay on these poems. In it, Strier effectively counters a number of critical errors (the equation of Calvinism with despair, the reading of the sonnets as an exposure of the system’s horrors, the conviction that orthodoxy or settled belief cannot create great art) in its first ten pages before making its very smart and insightful case that “the pain and confusion in many of the ‘Holy Sonnets’ is not that of the convinced Calvinist but rather that of a person who would like to be a convinced Calvinist but who is both unable to be so and unable to admit that he is unable to be so.”20 This seems to me an eminently perceptive and sensible way of thinking about the sonnets’ complexities, but Strier complicates and weakens his case by correlating artistic value with either coherently orthodox conviction or self-conscious reflection on the incoherence of one’s conflicted beliefs. Many of the “Holy Sonnets,” I will argue, evade their predicament by failing to acknowledge their fundamental theological confusions. The successes among the “Holy Sonnets” of 1608–10 include a poem that presents a paradoxical psychological state virtually without reference to theology (“O might those sighs and tears returne againe”), a poem that, as we shall see, openly acknowledges its impasses and its sophistry (“If poysonous minerals”), and a handful of poems that attain sufficient theological coherence not to be at crosspurposes with themselves and to derive imaginative energy from their coherence. The pain in the poems decreases as they become more coherently Calvinist. (361)

This evaluative impulse and its premises cause needless problems. Strier is an exceptionally well-informed and capable reader, but his designation of theological coherence or explicit, first-person self-analysis (i.e., a higherorder form of resolution) as necessary for good religious poetry seems, to say the least, arbitrary – one could easily argue that the most doctrinally coherent of the Holy Sonnets are also the least interesting – and it limits the potential of his conflict-acknowledging thesis by subjecting it to unnecessary forms of judgment. Is it not possible for an aesthetically and conceptually great poem to embody conflict and struggle without also resolving or directly musing upon it – to derive imaginative energy precisely from its

Agency and/or Assurance


own cross purposes? Of course it is, and surely one can productively read these poems without falling into either the overdetermined distortion of Stachniewski or the far-preferable but arbitrary and ultimately conflictneutering standards Strier proposes here – standards that result in some forced readings, and some highly subjective declarations of poetic success or failure that are far from apparent, in order to make aesthetic value align with theological clarity. Catherine Gimelli Martin’s theologically informative and nuanced 2013 article on the Holy Sonnets usefully focuses on internal tensions within Calvinism itself, but ultimately falls into a similar pattern of overextension. Committed (I think mistakenly) to harmonizing the sonnets with each other as well as with Donne’s sermons, her efforts to read “the sequence” as “a virtual review of Perkins’ system”21 of experimental predestinarianism illuminate some of the poems very effectively, but account poorly for others (including several I discuss below) because they are in fact an acutely conflicted batch of poems by a writer who reveled in presenting different, paradoxical, and indeed sometimes contradictory points of view in his work. It may be that, as Martin argues, Perkins’ efforts to “soften” some of the soteriological rigors of Calvinism shaped Donne’s inherently public and pastoral sermons in some comprehensive (if uncited) way, but the full range of the Holy Sonnets, whose agential fault lines run deeper than the difference between “the purely passive or receptive and active phases of faith” (366), will not let us off that easy. Avoiding such extraneous and distracting commitments enables us to think more clearly about the poems, both individually and in relation to one another. Gene Veith helps us to peer more deeply into those tectonic fractures when he suggests that the issue of “Calvinist certainty” and its corollaries – election, perseverance, assurance, the totality of divine agency and the total submission of our own – constitute the “central theological and emotional difference” between Herbert and Donne. He contends that while Herbert largely possesses such certainty, Donne finds [Calvinism] very attractive – he yearns for God to be the ravisher – but he does not really believe in it. This tension between the two kinds of spirituality manifests itself in the complexity of his theological positions and in the richness of his religious verse . . . Donne is perhaps caught between the poles. Too much of an Augustinian to trust the will and too much of an Arminian to trust grace alone, Donne denies himself any confidence.22


Struggle: Donne

Though one might quibble with some specifics here, this is a nicely turned formulation that is alert to theological tension and complexity without getting sidetracked by polemic, evaluation, or artificial consistency. Precisely because of its nonjudgmental recognition of conflict and dissonance, Veith’s reading of Donne’s deeply conflicted religious poems can help us to recognize more fully how saturated they are by struggles for agency, often in unexpected and half-hidden ways. Donne seems to want Calvinist assurance, sometimes desperately, but as I will demonstrate, he has another and perhaps stronger desire for control.23 This is a problem for him, because one thing that Calvinists, Catholics, and Arminians all agreed on was the fundamental incompatibility of soteriological agency and absolute assurance,24 such that if one wants one of them, one must willingly disavow the other; you don’t get to take absolute comfort in absolute grace without acknowledging its absoluteness and thus fully relinquishing control to God. While Donne’s stance of wanting assurance but being unwilling to pay the price for it might be seen as contemptibly childish, it is both fairer and more interesting to see him as caught on the horns of the central theological dilemma of his time (and many other times). This predicament is articulated in ways that, contrary to what many pro- and anti-Protestant critics have argued, powerfully registers both the deep appeal of Pauline–Augustinian– Calvinist Christianity, and the perhaps-unbearable poignancy of what it requires.25 Small wonder that the speaker of the Holy Sonnets (whom I will often call Donne, though my argument will work fine without any autobiographical dimension, i.e., reading the poems as broadly representative of deep theological issues in Christianity) is so anxious and uncertain; he turns out to be a very conflicted and contentious fellow, veering dizzyingly between submission, critique, gratitude, defiance, grief, love, anger, comfort, despair, passivity, action, God, and himself. In the intensity of his desire to be eternally reconciled to a perfect and loving and omnipotent God, he is willing to pay any price – suffering, violation, his mistresses, his wife, his sin, his life – except the loss of all control. Like Hieronimo, Donne does not fully trust that divinity will do things right; unlike Hieronimo, he wishes that he did. That Donne feels at least some attraction to, or conviction of, Protestant understandings of soteriological agency as belonging completely to God, is quite clear. The Holy Sonnets contain many references to grace, even total grace (“[God] hath deign’d to chuse thee by adoption, / Coheire to’his glory,’and Sabbaths endlesse rest,” “Onely thou art above, and when towards thee / By thy leave I can looke, I rise againe”), but these less

Agency and/or Assurance


often articulate a conviction of such grace than a powerful desire for it (“Thy Grace may wing me to prevent [Satan’s] art, / And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart,” “[please] burne me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee’and thy house,” “Batter my heart . . . dearely’I love you, and would be lov’d faine”).26 In the penultimate line of “As due,” he fears that God “lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not chuse me,” and in the same line of “This is my play’s last scene,” he begs God to “impute me righteous.” “Wilt thou love God” marvels that God “hath deign’d to chuse thee by adoption”; “Batter my heart” calls for a violent divine overwhelming of the sinner’s contrary will; “Thou hast made me” laments that “not one houre I can my selfe sustaine”; and “Father, part” observes that . . . such are those laws, that men argue yet Whether a man those statutes can fulfill; None doth, but all-healing grace and Spirit Revive againe what law and letter kill.

R.V. Young has correctly cautioned against assuming that any reference to grace, even prevenient grace, automatically denotes Calvinism;27 as always, Protestants and Catholics shared more beliefs than contemporary polemic might suggest, and as we have seen Catholicism had plenty of room for both election and prevenient grace. But grace, spirit, and life are here set in opposition to the ruinous claims of law, death, and human action, and the poem appeals finally to divine love rather than justice. Moments like these, especially when taken in aggregate, suggest that salvation is a matter of choice not human but divine, not a reward for human work or action but an inscrutable decree from heaven that generates, rather than results from, human righteousness. In all these instances, that arbitrary dispensation functions either by absence, as a hopeless prospect of unspeakable terror, or by presence, as the extraordinary and only solution to the speaker’s sinfully hellbound predicament. Young overstates an interesting point when he says that “Calvinist notions of grace pervade the Holy Sonnets in this fashion: not as a principal theological inspiration, but as a lingering fear of faithlessness haunting the background of poems that in most of their features resemble Catholic devotional poetry of the continent” (28). To describe Donne’s sovereign grace in these poems as merely a trace of fear, a shadow flitting occasionally in the poems’ background, is unpersuasive; it obliterates the intense desire that the poems demonstrate for the unassailable sense of security that comes only with Protestant models of grace – a guaranteed and unlosable confidence in one’s salvation. The passages cited above collectively attest to Donne’s profound sense of


Struggle: Donne

hunger, of need, for this kind of grace. As he concludes “Father, part”: “Thy lawes abridgement, and thy last command / Is all but love; Oh let that last Will stand!” The problem for Donne, of course, is the steep price at which this kind of grace comes: the resignation of the self’s autonomous (or even soteriologically contributory) agency. His resistance to paying it is visible in the very first poem.28 “As due by many titles I resigne / My selfe to thee, O God,” it begins, and the central business of the octave will be to orthodoxly catalog the “many titles” (creature, property, son, servant, sheep, image, temple) by which God has claims on him. But even here there are problems. The deceptively humble initial claim of the poem is not “I belong to thee, O God,” not a simple recognition of divine ownership, but “I resigne / My selfe to thee” – a performative declaration, an act of and upon the self as both subject and object. The ensuing catalog enumerates the relational claims of God, but as Strier has observed, these are also claims of status and perhaps right on the speaker’s part, and in any case are they enough to outweigh the covert self-assertion of that initial sentence?29 Perhaps they are simply factors and considerations in the speaker’s decision to grant God authority over him. Furthermore, the second half of the octave raises additional questions about the poem’s theological humility. I am thy sonne, made with thy selfe to shine, Thy servant, whose paines thou hast still repaid, Thy sheepe, thine Image, and till I betray’d My selfe, a temple of thy Spirit divine.

Even leaving aside the lofty assumptions of line 5, there are, shall we say, questions here. “Till I betray’d / My selfe” presents in more active and specific form what was perhaps implied in the third line’s “when I was decay’d,” but this time suggesting not just original sin or sinfulness in general, but a personally earned loss of God’s indwelling spirit (and this described as a betrayal not of God but of self). One might be forgiven for hearing a faint note of almost Faustian pride here, particularly considering that lines 7–8 reproduce exactly the technique of lines 1–2: the use of enjambment to interrupt an apparent statement of humility and emphasize “My selfe” (capitalized, no less!) at the beginning of the following line. Here again, the self is both subject and object, both doer and done-to, and God perhaps a secondary consideration and agent. This tension is corroborated by the ambiguity in line 6, where “paines” might be understood as “guilt” (the point thus being a grateful acknowledgment of the atonement), or as “suffering” (made good and beneficial by God), or, most

Agency and/or Assurance


plausibly, as “efforts” (the point thus being, quite contrarily, that God, the just master, has always properly rewarded the speaker’s efforts). The ghost in the background here, contra Young, may be not that of Calvin but that of Pelagius. Once these hesitations and reservations have been properly noted, the sestet seems like a bit less of a dislocation than some critics have found it. A speaker who has insisted multiple times on his own prerogatives of judgment and action might even be expected to pass critical judgment on God’s disappointing job performance (“Except thou rise, and for thine owne worke fight, / Oh I shall soone despaire”), and offer helpful tips for improvement. What is less predictable is the poem’s turn to an implicitly Protestant logic of divine selection as the sum total of soteriology (“when I doe see / That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not chuse me”), which is not apparent in the octave: without God’s deliberate choosing, all the potent claims previously staked (even his purchase with Christ’s blood, which apparently was not in perpetuity) are of no effect. The real discord between the octave and sestet is between an assertion of the speaker’s agency, choice, and action in the former, where his value is asserted, and an assertion of God’s in the latter, where blame is levied. The poem is, then, both theologically conflicted and self-answering. It insists on human agency except when fault is assigned, at which point everything that matters is God’s doing, even though the claims made for “myself” should surely imply at least some responsibility for the current state of affairs, and in this sense the speaker’s theology is self-servingly inconsistent. At the same time, that very inconsistency may mean that the octave provides answers for the agonized questions of the sestet. Why is God neglectful, and Satan attentive, and the speaker on the brink of despair? Perhaps because, as the octave demonstrates, he has not embraced the logic of election and total grace (except when assigning blame), and without that there is no assurance. In this way, a poem can indeed ironically present cross purposes, and derive energy from them, without resolving or meditating explicitly upon them. Once we have properly recognized this tension in “As due,” it becomes visible throughout the Holy Sonnets. The sestet of “O my black soul” follows a guilty, panicky octave, and contains a relatively clear soteriological discussion. Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke; But who shall give thee that grace to beginne? Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke,


Struggle: Donne And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne; Or wash thee in Christs blood, which hath this might, That being red, it dyes red soules to white.


The ninth line expresses an orthodox trust in grace, though some Protestants might say that he inverts the ordo salutis by making grace posterior to, and dependent upon, repentance – and in any case the tenth line recuperates this by apparently noting the need for prior grace from an external source for the process to even get started. In Lewalski’s reading of the poem, “God of course must give that prevenient grace and the repentance itself,” but such readings (and they are numerous) assume that the question of line 10 is entirely rhetorical, its answer singular and obvious.30 The remainder of the poem throws this assumption into question. While there may be nothing clearly exceptionable about the sorrow and shame called for in lines 11–12, the speaker’s imperative suggestion that his sinful soul “make thy selfe” that way may be answering his previous question in a way that doesn’t occur to Lewalski, and suggesting that repentance is an autonomous, initiating act of will after all. Now it is true that the poem moves immediately and conclusively to Christ’s blood, but to rest there is to overlook the most arresting, and least noticed, word in the entire poem: the humble (or perhaps not so humble) coordinating conjunction “or,” which has very substantial implications.31 Its coordinating effect, syntactically, is to pair the speaker’s self-generat[ed/ing] repentance and Christ’s blood as two equally viable courses of action, but also to polarize them as mutually exclusive – “or” has a very different logic than “and” or “then” – alternatives, and this commixture of incompatible equality resists the hypotactic pressure from theology to subordinate the first option to the second. It is true that Donne attributes the power of justification only to Christ’s blood, but that is a substance; the action of putting it to use is also, tellingly, enjoined of the soul-addressee (“wash th[yself]”) in yet another subject/object solipsism. In any case, the “or” ensures that blood and grace are not the only factors in play in a poem that subtly but insistently reserves the option of soteriological self-fashioning. A similar kind of struggle concludes “At the round earth’s imagined corners,” as the speaker asks God to “Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good / As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.” This time, the rebellious fulcrum is the “as if” in line 14, which again stakes a remarkable claim of non-overlapping equivalence (my repentance is “as good” as your atonement, and thus implicitly a viable alternative to it). But the comparison, in its subjunctive or counterfactual mood, also contains an astonishing denial in its final line: my pardon having been sealed by your blood is either

Agency and/or Assurance


a wish, or conditional upon my repentance, or – if we take the “as if” in its most strongly counterfactual, Clueless sense – simply not the case. It is possible that Donne is carefully expressing a reservation about the doctrine of limited atonement (a corollary of strict election which taught that Christ died only to justify the elect, not to offer all humans the opportunity to be saved), but this reading is less apparent than that of equation and denial. Strier concludes his discussion of the poem by observing (372) that “again, as in ‘Oh my black Soule,’ Donne seems able to imagine repentance but not grace.” Though its implications are not followed out, this is a marvelously astute observation.32 If it is correct, it would describe neither a Catholic (Strier habitually describes Donne as “Erasmian”) nor an Arminian alternative to an artificially Calvinized reading, as both Catholics and Arminians were quite fully capable of robust notions of grace; it must point to a more fundamental assertion of will and agency – something more like Pelagius, who really did have difficulty with atoning grace because his plenary sense of human capacity made it logically unnecessary. Donne’s mistrust of grace reaches its caustically skeptical zenith in the octave of “If poisonous minerals,” where a series of ethical questions points up the downside of divine attention. If non-sentient things (and the elect!) can do and feel bad things without penalty, why am I held responsible when I do the same thing? On what moral basis is the act itself any different, especially when one considers original sin and its corruption of the will? And if God is infinitely good, why does he sound so mean? Strier thinks that the octave is being “deliberately and spectacularly specious” (382), a demonstration of the sinful failures and limitations of the self, but the fact that Christianity offered settled, orthodox answers to these questions does not mean that this is the only way the octave can be read. It might be seen as a series of understandable (if dangerously frank) questions regarding the justice and even the goodness of God, the answers to which are all gifts of God, and all suspect. Why should I be damned? Because God created humans with the special gifts of intent and reason, thus making them morally responsible. So God’s “gift” has the primary effect of rendering me damnable – but since I am admittedly and inevitably sinful, how is that fair, and how do I get out of this trap? Well, God is merciful and forgiving, and may give me the gift of grace – but if that’s so, then why does it so often sound like he won’t? And why doesn’t he have mercy for everyone? The octave’s account of God’s ethically ordered universe, in other words, is highly skeptical, and makes all of God’s attentions seem like curses. I doubt that Donne himself actually felt this way, but the questions are not utterly unreasonable unless one considers


Struggle: Donne

any human questioning of the ways of God to be inherently inappropriate. It is precisely this view that the speaker snaps back into at the volta by reaffirming the absolute difference between them (“who am I, that dare dispute with thee? / O God, Oh!”) and submitting totally to it with a plea for sovereign, redeeming grace and forgiveness. This desire for the forgetting of his sins is pinned on “thine onely worthy blood,” which can only mean something along the lines of “your blood, which alone, solely, [or perhaps purely, entirely – but then why not say “wholly”?] is worthy and capable of effecting this” – an avowal of the total agency of divine grace in his justification (the “heavenly Lethean flood” of being made right with God through divine erasure). Donne, alas, cannot leave it at that; he cannot help himself, so to speak, from trying to help himself. This time, the struggle is couched in another conjunction, an ambiguous possessive, and two pronouns, all so skillfully disguised that they have escaped the notice of the many critics who read the poem as moving toward total submission, repentance, and reliance on grace. Having just acknowledged the radical asymmetry between himself and God, implicitly asserted his total submission, and pointed out the unique power of Christ’s atoning blood, the speaker, subtly but firmly, reinserts himself with an underhanded “and”: Oh! of thine onely worthy blood, And my teares, make a heavenly Lethean flood And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie.33

The apparent repentance and contrition – in short, the apparent humility – of “my tears” effectively masks the insistent ego of their addition, as the double-edged logic of the supplement intervenes yet again: is it “and this extra thing too,” or “this is also necessary”? This uncertainty gets replicated to a degree in the closing couplet and its problematic “them,” which might refer back to “sinnes” or forward to “some,” thus yielding two very different readings of line 13 (either “some people claim it as a debt [presumably owed by them to God, though the reverse might also be possible] that you remember their sins,” or “some people claim it as a debt [presumably owed posteriorly by them to God, though here too the reverse might also be possible] that you remember them [i.e., ‘some’]”). Which reading one takes matters a great deal, because “them” is also directly linked to the otherwise-unstated object of “forget” at the poem’s end, and thus to the sonnet’s final payoff. Critics who read the poem as ending in orthodox contrition and submission34 thus typically attach “them” to “sinnes,” so as to end the poem in a biblically familiar request for divine

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


forgetting of the speaker’s sins. This conventional reading is comforting, but becomes less compelling when one asks under what circumstances Christians have conventionally wished for God to remember their sins, and realizes that the answer is few or none. Some of these critics cite Psalm 25:7 – “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord” – but this verse actually demonstrates the problem with such readings: the consistent biblical and rhetorical convention is to ask God to remember me, but forget my sins.35 Perhaps this should nudge us toward the other reading, in which some claim as debt (either owed by God to them or vice versa, a theologically interesting syntactical ambiguity either way) divine remembrance of they themselves; this is more plausible, but leads unavoidably to an astonishingly nihilistic final line (i.e., “I think it mercy if thou wilt forget [me]”). This scandalously negative reading makes sense in the poem insofar as it connects perfectly well with the octave, which had suggested a very critical view of God’s attentions as coming with more costs than benefits. At the same time, the more orthodox reading connects perfectly well with the initial submissiveness of the sestet, and as a result we have a poem quite amenable to two incompatible and, in fact, directly contrary readings: one which finally embraces and submits to the absolute sovereignty of God, another which rejects it entirely as a curse. In typical Donnean fashion, the struggle is deep, unresolved, and hidden in unexpected wrinkles of syntax and reference, a clandestine conjunction and a pronominal ambiguity.

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613” Similar covert struggles occur, even more surreptitiously, in one of Donne’s greatest and best-loved devotional poems. “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” has attracted considerable critical attention in the last fifty years, and in a 1995 collection, the poem was treated in five essays out of eighteen. William Halewood lists some of the central critical issues in “Goodfriday’s” recent history: if the rider’s error is a particular and identifiable sin (if so, what sin?); whether it is sin at all, or merely failure in meditation; whether the rider goes his way under compulsion or by choice; whether his rebellion ceases or continues; and whether the poem arrives at closure.36

To this list one might add whether the speaker’s (and Donne’s) theology is fundamentally Protestant or Catholic; the figural history and implications


Struggle: Donne

of the celebrated spherical/orbital analogy with which the poem begins; the devotional relationship of imagination, passion, and reason; and so forth. These are all good, important questions, brought forth by a poem that provokes them in rich and complex ways, but a questionable sort of consensus seems to pervade the critical history of “Goodfriday,” and that often-unspoken agreement assumes that the poem is a devotional triumph. Whether the poem’s essential dynamic is held to be bound up in Ignatian meditation, a more Protestant mode of memory, poetic projection, cosmological reimagining, unmerited grace, Catholic penitentiality, or the speaker’s recognition of his own sheer depravity, most readers see the end result to be a spiritual success – a healthy and necessary act of radical submission to the will and grace of God, and an announcement of total dependence on His purifying correction. As Helen Brooks has put it, in this poem “the will is slowly but surely brought into alignment with the will of God,”37 and this claim would fit comfortably into many, perhaps most, readings of “Goodfriday.” Perhaps this sort of reading is right; it certainly seems to affirm a sense of devotional purpose for the poem, and it has at any rate generated a good deal of interesting and illuminating scholarship. But I think that there are at least two reasons to re-examine the prevalent assumption of devotional success (i.e., genuine reorientation and submission to Christ) in “Goodfriday.” The first is that it often seems to lead critics away from the poem, using sermons, traditions, or perhaps personal beliefs – whether about God or Donne or poetry I won’t presume to guess – to assert things about the poem that simply don’t appear to be there, not supplementing or corroborating careful reading but distorting and displacing it. Paul Harland, for example, claims toward the end of an often-interesting essay that the speaker takes up his own cross and mirrors Christ by being willing, through God’s grace, to accept the suffering inherent in loving the world compassionately for God’s sake . . . By giving the soul of devotion a body, and thus making it active, he witnesses his own resurrection, reflects God’s image, and becomes Christ in the world . . . this conversion reveals to the speaker the divine purpose underlying of [sic] the westward journey, which until now, he had failed to see.38

On this I’ll simply say that almost none of these claims has any clear basis in the text of the poem;39 rather, they seem to be derived from snippets of sermons and then forced quite puzzlingly – in some cases, indeed, inexplicably – upon it. But far from being an aberration, this instance is symptomatic of a fairly widespread critical tendency to draw homiletic conclusions from

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


the poem as if they were there, and while these conclusions might well be morally or theologically laudable, and perhaps even true of other Donnean texts, it is a serious interpretive problem to impose them on a text which doesn’t apparently contain or suggest them. A second reason to question the assumption of devotional closure in this poem is that it seems to me to run counter to what makes Donne so fascinating as a devotional writer: the profound and perpetual tension between acquiescence and resistance, submission and assertion, gratitude and resentment, humility and egotism, which gives his religious poems such an aching, compelling force. This is, after all, the poet who imperiously commands God to overwhelm his agency in “Batter my heart,” and who both castigates and apologizes to God in “If poisonous minerals” – only to preserve some hostility in the pronominal ambiguity of the closing couplet. The agonizingly conflicted depth and complexity of Donne’s poetry often arise from its frank focus on the struggles and failures and even resentments that result from his (frequently unresolved) resistance to the kind of deity he claims to want. Perhaps “Goodfriday” is not exempt from this characteristic and crucial dynamic; perhaps the conflict with which the poem begins is a real one, and not a misrecognition of providence for sinful waywardness; perhaps, in the poem’s directional and devotional logic, west is not, as several critics have contended, really east after all.40 In the remainder of this chapter, I will argue that the movement of the poem is not, as Patrick O’Connell has argued, one of “letting go of [the speaker’s] self-centered individualism,” nor as Carol Sicherman has suggested, from “intellectual jugglery” to honest humility,41 but precisely and ironically the opposite of both. As he surveys some of these critics, Halewood observes that “what kind of hinge we find in the apostrophe . . . depends to a large extent on how we understand ‘but’” in line 37. He rightly critiques theologically problematic readings of this word which see the westward riding as itself a path to God (and thus a good thing), and reads but in a more straightforward sense, arguing that such a reading creates no insurmountable obstacles to theological coherence and devotional closure. The result is a reading of the poem as “a radically Protestant meditation on sin and salvation” (218) in which the problems of sinful resistance are fully rectified by a divine presence that “puts an end to question and debate” (228). Halewood’s but simplifies some critical overcomplications, and clears up some theological problems, but it also, like other readings, produces – in fact seems to require – a conclusion of decisive spiritual closure.42 Clearly, though, neither the poem nor Halewood’s reading of it have “put an end to


Struggle: Donne

question and debate,” and there are reasons for this. I want to suggest that this closure may not be there; that the radical submission may not be there either; that the entire poem does indeed turn on a single word in line 37, heretofore little-noted; and that that word turns out to be not but, but turn. There are significant interpretive and theological ramifications to this. But Halewood is not the only one to get tripped up around line 37. In a recent article, Richard Strier gives what is in some ways an even better critique of this poem’s critical history, but there too are problems. On two matters I think Strier is exactly right. First, he observes and attacks what he calls “the importation of scholarly baggage,” and contends that “the application of scholarly knowledge to poems needs to be controlled by a very strict sense of contextual relevance and by a non-totalizing sense of what a ‘tradition’ or an ‘episteme’ is.”43 As my previous remarks indicate, I agree with this, and would amplify it to include unjustified impositions of ideas even from an author’s other works, which has played its own role in this poem’s muddled critical history. It will also be apparent by this point (and if it isn’t it soon will be) that I agree wholly with Strier’s critique of what he calls the dogmatic “‘error-correction’ view of the structure and progression of the poem” (16) – that is, the view that the poem begins with a counterdevotional state of error which is successfully rectified by the poem’s end. When Strier’s argument reaches its climax, however, his heretoforeconvincing reading becomes unstable and unsatisfying in its efforts to effectively resolve this longstanding critical difficulty; it becomes at once less original (in its reading, along the lines of diPasquale, Schoenfeldt, and Gilman, of the poem’s end as pushy and conditional) and less coherent (in its confusing account of the object of gratification, and its unclarity as to how his conclusion fixes or even addresses the critical problem), and the essay’s three remaining paragraphs are its least purposeful and most muddled. Interestingly, the point in the poem at which Strier’s account falters is precisely where Halewood misses his opportunity: line 37, a line that Strier, remarkably and uncharacteristically, twice misquotes as “I turne my back on thee” (22–3). (He also describes what happens in it almost correctly – “Donne refuses, again, to change his direction” – before re-describing it, incorrectly and contradictorily, as a “gesture.”) One might, therefore, see “Goodfriday,” and in particular its thirtyseventh line, as a sort of critical tar pit into which many very good readers and critics have fallen – in some cases while in the act of recognizing the errors of their predecessors. The title of Strier’s article asserts, correctly, that much of the criticism is “going in the wrong direction,” but when he hits line

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


37, his own argument loses its way. I want to argue here that one reason for this history of confusion has to do with a missed direction in that line, a turn that is not, and cannot be, what it seems. Attending closely to this turn can lead us out of the “contract of error,” and resolve a number of stubbornly persistent critical problems that have bedeviled Donne’s great poem. To fully understand the importance of the turn, however, we must begin at the beginning. The first ten lines of “Goodfriday” clearly set up the fundamental importance of movement and directional orientation. Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, Th’intelligence that moves, devotion is, And as the other Spheares, by being growne Subject to forraigne motions, lose their owne, And being by others hurried every day, Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit For their first mover, and are whirld by it. Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.

Here, in lines 9–10, is the poem’s central metaphor: the division of body and soul, west and east, distraction and devotion. The speaker laments that while his soul harkens toward the devotional east of Christ’s crucifixion, it is dragged toward the nondevotional – that is, worldly or, in its pull away from Christ, essentially sinful – west of “pleasure or businesse” toward which he moves physically (and which, not coincidentally, is also the direction in which one would usually exit a traditionally east-oriented church building, walking away from the altar and toward the temporal world).44 But there is something slightly fraudulent about this lament. Though the speaker attempts to defuse his own responsibility by suggesting that he is passively “carried” westward, his problem really can’t be blamed on his horse,45 and in fact he has already quite candidly revealed to us a starker truth: he is culpable for his own devotional failure. Born, apparently, with a devout soul (an essential inclination that I take to be the point of the reference to the spheres’ “naturall forme”), he has not simply lost this orientation; he has abandoned it. His response to the temptation of “foreign motions” and quotidian distractions has been to embrace them (“Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit / For their first mover”), and he is hence liable for his own spiritual corruption and the westerly movement that is a symptom of it; if he is being “carried,” it is by a force of his own choosing. This is perhaps the poem’s most spiritually honest moment.


Struggle: Donne

Having acknowledged his fundamental problem, the question for the speaker then becomes what to do about it – and as the saying goes, you are what you do. We should first note what he does not do: he doesn’t simply turn his horse around to bring his physical and spiritual selves into alignment, and he thus perpetuates his complicity in what he himself has clearly identified as a serious spiritual problem. The spheres may turn (or tune) in Christ’s hands, but the westward rider does not. What he does do is begin to amplify his claim of devotional easterliness. There I should see a Sunne, by rising set, And by that setting endlesse day beget; But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, Sinne had eternally benighted all.

Were he in fact facing east, he “should see” (meaning, presumably, “would see,” though a sense of implied – and ignored – obligation certainly fits with the speaker’s own previous self-analysis46) Christ on the cross. Not literally, of course, but devotionally, and this is precisely what he apparently proceeds to do in lines 15–32. Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see That spectacle of too much weight for mee. Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye; What a death were it then to see God dye? It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke, It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke. Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, And tune all spheares at once, peirc’d with those holes? Could I behold that endlesse height which is Zenith to us, and to’our Antipodes, Humbled below us? or that blood which is The seat of all our Soules, if not of his, Make durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne? If on these things I durst not looke, durst I Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye, Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?

The paradox of this central passage is of course that he does not do what he appears to be doing. He does not see; he does not dare; he does not behold; he does not even look. He simply wonders if he could and what it would be like, and in this way he makes the Crucifixion quite vividly

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


present for us while scrupulously avoiding it himself. The speaker’s response to his own recognition that he “should see” Christ is to continue his refusal to do so. Since Martz, critics typically read this strange dynamic of seeing by way of not-seeing as some more or less successful combination of Ignatian “composition” (a devotional version of memorial reconstruction) – or perhaps some analogous but more Protestant mode of imaginative memory – and the sense of devotional humility and empathy that it was designed to provoke. But it is worth considering whether this sort of reading might rather be an interpretive effect of a masterful poetic trick perpetrated on us (and some very distinguished company) in the final ten lines. Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, They’are present yet unto my memory, For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee, O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree; I turne my backe to thee, but to receive Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee, Burne off my rusts, and my deformity, Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Here we have the encouraging suggestion that the speaker’s predicament may admit of resolution: though he can’t – won’t – see the Crucifixion physically, his eyes of faith have made its every detail “present” through their devotionally steady gaze. Even this gloriously complex claim, however, is problematic: remember that he has taken great care to ensure that this does not happen, that the scene is, for whatever reason, held at arm’s length and just offstage. Halewood is mistaken, I think, when he speaks of “God’s rectifying presence” at the poem’s end (228); when Donne does allow an addressable Christ to enter the poem, it is on the speaker’s terms – silence, beneficent watching, concerned listening, raising no questions or objections about the speaker’s version of events – and a projection of his egoism, so skillfully rendered that we may mistake it for an objective presence. This may appear to be an instance of how Donne characteristically reworks a classically Catholic form into a more Protestant version: in refusing the presence-adoring meditative gaze, yet generating an imaginary projection of the scene, he parallels the Reformed sacramental emphasis on figural, memorial apprehension of the divine – and of course, the same primal scene ultimately underwrites and serves as the referent of both the


Struggle: Donne

Eucharist and this poem. But surely things are not so simple: memory and imagination are important parts of the Ignatian model, and thus cannot be exclusively associated with either Catholic or Protestant devotion. Furthermore, is the speaker’s present-making “memory” really a mode of devotional intimacy at all, or is it a further evasion, a way for him to constitute and address a savior of his own making (and whose reciprocating gaze will conveniently affirm the speaker’s own sense of self)? If the latter, then the apparent submission that ends the poem may not be what it seems, but rather a roundabout validation of the speaker’s own desires. Nevertheless, at first glance, this dynamic appears to be quite effective. The speaker’s imaginative regard of the Crucifixion makes Christ sufficiently present to be directly addressed for the remainder of the poem. And the poem does describe a gratifyingly reciprocal sort of dynamic, in which a crisscrossing, remembering gaze simultaneously constitutes both the Crucifixion and the devotional speaker himself; perhaps this address is a consequence not of the speaker’s regard of Christ, but of Christ’s regard for him (“thou look’st towards mee”). Once this mutual regard is established, the poem heads toward its great penitential conclusion (37–42), which begins with the pivotal claim that “I turne my backe to thee, but to receive / Corrections,” and proceeds to articulate what appears to be a radical humility and desire for punitive purification. The vast majority of critics writing on this poem, regardless of their overall theological perspective, tend to see the ending this way, as a conclusion of devotionally constructive reorientation. But that first phrase is pivotal indeed; the entire poem depends on it, and the phrase itself depends on a single word. As I suggested earlier, that word is not but, but turn, and thus it is now time to turn to turn. We should note first that this only appears to be a simple word; its history and usage encompass enormous complexity, ambivalence, and contradiction. Among the scores of definitions catalogued in the Oxford English Dictionary, one is struck – perhaps unnecessarily so, given that the very notion of turning implies multiple, different, deviant, contradictory directions – by the many that indicate change, conflict, misdirection, antipathy. To turn can mean to pervert or misapply (14a), to beguile or cheat (14b), to adopt or reject a particular religious belief (29a), to revolt or desert (30c), to attack or oppose (33), to transmute or substitute (35), to translate or paraphrase or render (44a), or to leave or abandon (48). Heather Dubrow47 applies these sorts of complications to literary form, and argues that lyric verse is itself deeply structured by the oppositionality of versus and the turning and conflict inscribed within it.

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


But despite these built-in difficulties of turning, and despite what I will argue is its highly problematic nature in “Goodfriday,” most critics skate right past this word48 without noting either its inherent complexity or its specific and crucial oddness. Some, though, have paused to explicate it. Helen Brooks spends a paragraph49 discussing the historical importance of “turning” as a central Christian metaphor for repentance and conversion (the etymology of convert, from the Latin convertere, means essentially “to turn around, or with, or together”). Quite understandably, many readers proceed on the (not unreasonable) assumption that if conversion is figured as a turning, then this turning must be, as it so often has been in the history of Christian idiom, a conversion. Terry Sherwood spends an entire chapter50 digging out the theological subtleties and implications of turning, tracing the notion of bentness and straightening through Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Calvin to argue that Donne’s poem presents this turning, this conversion, as a lifelong process of aligning the will with that of God by means of penitential affliction. These treatments are often learned and fascinating, and it’s good to see at least a few scholars attending to this pivotal word, but in Donne’s hands, ever ready to exploit conflict and ambivalence, the turn may be a slipperier and more complex maneuver than it seems. Sherwood comes tantalizingly close to recognizing this when he observes that Donne’s statement that he will ‘turne’ his back plays with the notion of turning, since he is not actually proposing to turn away from Christ, but to accept willingly his penitential correction . . . Donne offers his back to receive the rod of God’s wrath and corrective affliction as a continuing impetus to repentance. (159; italics added)

But we can begin to glimpse the problems in this critical approach by paying careful attention to this passage, and to the poem. It is clear, for instance, that the speaker is not “proposing to turn” his back for any reason,51 and never does, though he does of course offer to turn his face in line 42. The “I turne” in line 37 is neither future nor subjunctive nor optative; it can only be a narration of a present act or perhaps a retrospective explanation of a state of affairs (i.e., not, contra Sherwood, “I will turn [because],” or “I would like to turn [because],” but “I am turning my back to you right now [because]” or “I have turned my back to you [because]”). Sherwood’s misreading of tense generates a chapter of analysis and explication which is very interesting but I think almost entirely misdirected. But surprisingly, this problem would not be solved by working with the two possibly-correct senses of turn, because – and this is the crucial point – neither of them makes sense either.


Struggle: Donne

Although this may seem baffling, it is not only possible but rather easily demonstrated. The present tense (“I am turning my back to you right now”) cannot work simply because his back is already turned to Christ, and has been all along (and thus cannot be re-turned that way without some intermediary action); this is precisely the speaker’s problem from line 9, where it is already an existing predicament that the opening eight lines have tried to explain. It is also the foundation of the poem’s central conceit, and without it the logic of the poem would simply fall apart. If there is no directional/spiritual conflict, there is no “Goodfriday,” and this conflict does not and cannot originate at the end of a poem in which there is no moment at which the speaker’s back is not turned to Christ and the devotional East. We also cannot read this turn as a useful or indeed even valid retrospective explanation of the speaker’s back-turnedness (“I have turned my back to you [because]”). Why not? Because if we do, we implicitly accept his claim that his back is, and has been, turned for penitential reasons, in a gesture of utter submission which is also a call for the infliction of suffering, by means of which Christ will restore him to worthiness. Only once this painful, punitive, purifying grace has done its work, he suggests, will he be and feel sufficiently worthy to turn around and look Christ in the eye. It is one of the greatest and most powerful moments of humility and anticipated grace in English poetry. The only problem with this orthodox and near-universal reading – and perhaps you were swept along by my account of it in spite of my prior warnings – is that it is demonstrably untrue. We know this because the speaker himself has already told us quite clearly the real reasons his back is turned: distraction, turpitude, a conscious and culpable relegation of devotion to a lower tier of priority. So this crucial turn cannot be a promise or an offer, a narration or an explanation (not an accurate and truthful one, at any rate); then what is it? A few critics, implicitly noting its apparent impossibility, have suggestively described it as a devotional “reinterpretation” of the speaker’s backturnedness, a regenerative change in perspective that redeems his failure and remakes it into devout submission (i.e., “As a result of my meditation, I am now thinking of my turned back in terms of submission rather than contempt, and would like you to do the same”). Textual evidence for interpreting, rather than assuming, this moment to be a shift in perspective is quite slight, but some critics go even further and contend that every line of the poem is thereby redeemed, that west was in fact east, and distraction was in fact devotion, all along.52 But surely this is a lot to ask of such a dubious (and factually nonexistent!) turning. It is the overdetermined answer to

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


prayer, an act of indomitable backreading, and a fulfillment of desires provoked in readers from the very beginning of the poem because it appears to rectify the poem’s central conflict. But if, as I have argued, this directional conflict has not been in the process of correction; if what looks like progress has been illusory; and if the speaker has been working hard to obscure and avoid (and thus perpetuate) the problem rather than fix it; then we might well want to examine this near-miraculous turning more skeptically, and be more alert to its potential disjunction and misrepresentation. So, once again, what is this nonnarrative, nonreferential, nonexplicative turn? The only answer left to us, I think, is that it is a trope; the turn is not a turn but a trope (a word which, to complicate things even further, derives from the Greek tropos, trepein or “turn,” and so it is a kind of literal trope, a tropical contortion which plays with the buried letter of its own turning, hinting at its own diversion from straightforwardness). Though it is more likely interesting coincidence than authorial intent, the etymological circularity and reflexivity of turn=trope=turn is nonetheless instructive, as it subtly indicates the spiritual narcissism of the speaker’s turning: it is a devotional ruse, a verbal sleight-of-hand, a poetic tour-de-force. It appears to be designed to trick its audience – which in this case means not only the poem’s readers but Christ himself and perhaps the speaker himself – into perceiving at least the beginning of a radical spiritual regeneration. But this chapter has been arguing that there are reasons to suspect that this apparent devotional success may not actually be occurring in the poem. Perhaps the last six lines are not decisive evidence of spiritual submission and renewal, but rather just the speaker saying what he thinks we, and Christ, want to hear. There are reasons one might resist (and some have resisted!) this argument, and some of these are worth addressing. One descends from Martz’s influential contention that the form of “Goodfriday” closely follows the form of classical Ignatian meditation, which is designed to culminate in spiritual colloquy with God. But even conceding the central formal claim of Martz’s analysis has little effect on my reading, for the simple reason that in both poetry and devotion, form provides no guarantee of content, resolution, or success (just ask Claudius, or Angelo, or any writer of bad sonnets).53 As my argument has implied, this principle and this distinction may be at the poem’s perverse heart: one may go through various devotional motions quite convincingly and even beautifully without sincerely meaning them. And to invoke form as a guarantee of outcome, as some have done, is an odd way to interpret a poem that begins by insisting on not only the corruptibility, but also the already-corruptedness, of devotional


Struggle: Donne

“forme.” So whether Donne is rehearsing a Catholic or Protestant meditative sequence (or just something that sounds good), one should be suspicious of assuming a necessary outcome54 – particularly in light of the fact that “deformity” persists through the poem’s end, as something yet to be dealt with. There is another, even deeper source of resistance, one which I encountered myself as this reading developed: this is simply one of Donne’s most beloved religious poems, treasured by many readers. To see this turning and thus this poem as a self-justifying rationalization of the speaker’s devotional failure, as a bill of goods palmed off on the crucified Christ himself (and perhaps the speaker too), would appear to radically undermine the status of “Goodfriday” as one of the great Christian poems in English. But this is not necessarily so. Such a reading would obviously disqualify the poem as a paradigmatic instance of successful devotional narration or submission. But as I argued earlier, successful resolution seems to me to not be the quintessentially Donnean approach to the struggles of faith; ending a poem in the authentic peace of quiet, if hard-won, submission to God is much more typical of Herbert. Can we really imagine Donne sitting and tasting love’s meat without some trace of a slyly triumphant smile, or a skeptical sniffing of the food, or wondering how much this off-menu special is going to cost him? No; in Donne’s version of religious experience, devotion is perpetually fraught with reservations, resistance, sometimes even resentment toward God’s intentions and the steep price (namely, the renunciation of autonomy and desire) with which they come. Consequently, the attitudes and actions of Donne’s poetic personae are often intensely problematized: witness the Holy Sonnets and their speakers’ profound doubt, fear, and sometimes hostility toward God. To this troubling list we might add outright fraud, as in “Oh, to vex me” – a poem entirely about devotional inconstancy and failure – wherein the speaker candidly admits to “courting” God with “flattering speaches.” Part of the Christian life, that is, inescapably involves the impulses of selfishness and sin, and Donne demonstrates that one aspect of this is our constant misrepresentations to God of ourselves as devout, submissive disciples; one needn’t be a Pharisee55 for even their prayers to be empty, deceptive, selfaggrandizing performances. His speakers sometimes perpetrate, and sometimes explicitly acknowledge, this desperate, impossible swindle as something that emerges equally from devotional desire and sinful failure. It appears to be an inevitable part of the deep ambivalence that even the elect, still sinful, can feel toward God, grace, and all that is good.

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


Donne does not shy away from this appalling truth elsewhere; rather, he acknowledges it with a candor that still has the power to provoke discomfort – even, and obviously, in himself. But it also provides a sort of comfort, in that even devotional failure can provide an occasion for grace.56 Donne confesses in the fifteenth of his Devotions that “I have sinned before thy face, in my hypocrisies in prayer, in my ostentation, and the mingling a respect of myself in preaching thy word,” and in the twenty-third, on the mend but warned by his doctors of the danger of relapse (a word that itself etymologically indicates a medically and/or morally significant change of direction), he prays about the inevitability of failure on the road of recovery and sanctification. But because, by too lamentable experience, I know how slippery my customs of sin have made my ways of sin, I presume to add this petition too, that if my infirmity overtake me, thou forsake me not. Say to my soul, My son, thou hast sinned, do so no more, but say also, that though I do, thy spirit of remorse and compunction shall never depart from me. Thy holy apostle, St. Paul, was shipwrecked thrice, and yet still saved. Though the rocks and the sands, the heights and the shallows, the prosperity and the adversity of this world, do diversely threaten me, though mine own leaks endanger me, yet, O God, let me never put myself aboard with Hymenaeus, nor make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience, and then thy long-lived, thy everlasting mercy, will visit me, though that which I most earnestly pray against, should fall upon me, a relapse into those sins which I have truly repented, and thou hast fully pardoned.57

Although “Goodfriday” so fundamentally demonstrates the power of “the prosperity of this world” and its deleterious effect on proper devotion, as well as the tenuousness and extinctability of “remorse and compunction,” perhaps the prospect of desertless grace still hovers over it, beyond its margins. The self-serving speaker of the poem is so skillful in his sleightof-hand that he may fool most of his fellow travelers (and possibly even himself), and he turns a turn into a trope so subtly that we may not even notice the self-gratification taking place at this apparently devotional moment, but God is presumably not so easily fooled (though one may try); the speaker may have generated an imaginary, staring Christ for his own purposes, but this does not eliminate the possibility, the necessity, the desperate and furtive hope of the real Christ watching him from outside the poem, ready to forgive his obliquely confessed failures and patch up his contaminated fraud with the bloody mud of grace. Thus this reading does not destroy, nor perhaps even diminish, the astounding greatness of this poem, though it certainly reconceives it in


Struggle: Donne

a much darker tone. After hearing an early version of my argument, a knowledgeable audience member quite brusquely asked, “Then why write the poem?” But as I have tried to demonstrate, not only is this not a knockdown question, it is one that indicates various uninterrogated (and, I’ve argued, unsustainable) assumptions about what the poem must be about, what it must be doing. When we do interrogate these assumptions, though, and when this turn – as perhaps the only, if exceedingly wellcloaked, major fault line in an otherwise flawless poetic and rhetorical performance58 – is carefully examined, “Goodfriday” becomes, if anything, more complex, more interesting, and more resonant with Donne’s other poems. Perhaps Donne was less interested in depicting an ideal act of devotion than in showing how easily and indeed almost imperceptibly those acts can run off course, and how subtly but deeply they can be tainted by our very involvement in them. And if this reading “ruins” the poem as an exemplary exercise of poetic devotion, it might nonetheless resurrect it as an equally remarkable act of confession – a poetic demonstration, not only of all the resistances in Donne’s religious poetry, nor only of the selfassertion that underlies those resistances, but also of the shrewd sinner’s extraordinary and perhaps limitless ability to carry these out under the guise of submissive piety. Although west is not east in this poem, and sin is not good (it may in fact be even worse than it initially seems), in this way even a false turn can instructively point us toward the conflicted and perilous nature of the agential devotional life. In all these ways, then, subtle and explicit, Donne resists total submission and clings to the hope of autonomy and self-determination. The heartbreaking poignance of reading the religious poems he likely wrote between 1607 and 1615 in this light derives from the hopeless predicament they articulate: he is a man who desperately desires the peace of assurance, but is constitutionally unable to embrace it because the price at which it comes is apparently too high. Herbert’s poems bespeak an author who floats on an ocean of grace and peace because his submission to, and trust in, God is fundamentally understood; while that ocean may be rippled occasionally by doubts, failures, and self-assertions, these can be traced to his own sin, and as long as the paradigm of grace prevails (and it always does) those disturbances will be reabsorbed into the main. Donne’s midcareer poems, in contrast, show us a man determined to paddle for himself, against the current, and doing a good deal of splashing in a battle between buoyancy and drowning. (I am reminded of teaching my children how to float in a swimming pool: it can’t be done without relaxing and

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


letting the water hold you up, but they instinctively [and unsuccessfully] try at first to hold themselves up by desperate flailing.) Donne’s subsequent devotional writings indicate a search for other responses, a more consistent and successfully realized desire to move from resistance and self toward acquiescence and peace. In “Since she whome I lovd hath payd her last debt” – generally taken to be about the death of his wife in 1617 – Donne resigns himself to loss, and finds consolation in the intensified relationship with a tenderly solicitous God which that loss makes possible. Here too there is fear, but it is projected onto God as an insecure suitor, worried that he might be displaced by Donne’s attractions to Catholicism, the world, the flesh, the devil himself. Here too an attitude that looks like submissive piety – in this case, resigned acceptance of the painfully mysterious ways of God – turns out to contain a good deal of self-assertion. “I’have found thee,” he informs God, and in his imagination the divine object of his regard frets continually over the instability, and the determinativeness, of the speaker’s desires. This may be a poem of resignation to an unchangeable state of affairs, and even a celebration (if perhaps a bit fearful that God is targeting the competition) of God’s desire for him, but it is not an absolute embrace of the kind of sovereign grace that generates assurance. It is an acceptance of attentions, grateful perhaps, but nonbinding, revocable, with a roving eye upon whose desires all hangs. Once again, unlike Herbert (for whom anything that resists grace is ultimately sin), Donne holds on to agential choice itself. He is willing to surrender his wife, but not his will. A different tone pervades “A Hymne to Christ,” written perhaps three years later. Here Donne turns his back on England and “all whom I lov’d there, and who lov’d mee” (9), renounces his desires for “Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses)” (25) and asks that God, for the sake of a properly and mutually jealous relationship, take away any residue of desire for anything but Him. This is a comprehensive and deeply sacrificial act of subordination, aimed at intense and exclusive communion with God, and for its sake Donne jettisons absolutely everything – except, we are now unsurprised to find, his own power of choice. The third stanza maintains that that choice must be voluntary (“Nor thou, nor thy religion, dost control, / The amorousness of an harmonious soul”), but also that it can only be correctly made after God removes all other options: “Thou lov’st not, till from loving more, thou free / My soule: Whoever gives, takes libertie: / Oh, if thou car’st not whom I love, alas, thou lov’st not mee” (19–21). As Augustine had argued, true freedom requires prior liberation from the disordered desires that lead away from God; Donne figures as benevolently


Struggle: Donne

codependent jealousy what Augustine had articulated as grace. The characteristic avowal of first-personal action is there – “I embark . . . I know . . . I sacrifice . . . I go . . . I am jealous . . . I go . . . I choose” – and it is unclear whether this is yet another case of resistance in which Donne clings to the importance of his own initiative, or the rectified desire of an object of justification that is now consequently a legitimately acting and choosing subject. I tend to think it’s the latter, as the poem predicates all its spiritually meaningful action on the action of God: “free / My soul,” “Seal then this bill,” “Marry those loves . . . to thee.” Donne’s embarking, sacrificing, going, and choosing only have value, and perhaps only have existence, in the context of God’s freeing, sealing, and marrying, which channel human desires away from hell (and the self) and toward heaven. Another three years or so, if Walton is trusted, brings us to “A Hymne to God the Father,” which enacts and re-enacts the tension of works and grace. Each of the first two stanzas begins with a question (“Wilt thou forgive?”), enumerates several categories of sins the speaker has committed, and concludes that even if God were to forgive all these particular types of sins – something not certainly concluded in these stanzas – the speaker’s guilt would remain unexhausted. In the third and final stanza, Donne acknowledges what has driven all the bean-counting, and where it has gotten him: “I have a sinne of feare.” His confessions have arisen not so much from regret or contrition as from a panic that some forgotten and unatoned infraction will be left over to condemn him, that some undone thing on his part will prompt God to abandon him when it matters most. But he recognizes this fear precisely as sin, as something incompatible with fully assured trust in God’s grace,59 and because this sin arises from excessive regard for one’s self and one’s works, he knows that there is only one antidote to it. Sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy Sunne [sonne] Shall shine as it [he] shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou hast done; I have [feare] no more.

The tense and the logic of this conclusion are somewhat perplexing. Why is he asking God to swear (to God) something that the Bible had already copiously promised? Why, having allowed Christ’s radiant grace in the past and present, does he require redundant promises about the future? Do the final two lines represent a forward shift in poetic time (“Once you do that, you’ll be done, and I’ll fear no more”) or a belated recognition of the redundancy of his request (“Now that I remember that you’ve already done that, I’m no longer afraid”)? In spite of these questions, though, the logic of

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


the solution is fairly clear: the compulsively endless work of seriatim confession is associated with fear, while total reliance on sovereign grace is equated with resolution and assurance. Nothing the speaker can do, no amount of enumeration or self-analysis, can dispel his sin, guilt, or soteriological fear; only the refulgent love of Christ can dispel that inner darkness and set him free. That same year of 1623 saw Donne laid flat with relapsing fever, and composing his extraordinary Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The very structure of each of the twenty-three devotions establishes a repeated pattern of dialectical conflict. Each begins with a “Meditation upon our humane condition,” typically built on a new symptom or development in his illness that both establishes the devotion’s central metaphor or motif (e.g., spots, vapors, fear, bells, writing, solitude), and bemoans some aspect of the “miserable condition of man” (4);60 continues to an “Expostulation, or debatement with God,” in which he pursues this meditation and often questions or complains about some aspect of how God has arranged things; and concludes with a prayer that seeks understanding, peace, and a repentantly submissive relationship to God, in which consolation is concomitant with the cessation of resistance and critique. While the Meditations repeatedly explore the ways in which “Man hath no center but misery; there, and only there, he is fixed, and sure to find himself” (133), the Expostulations contain some remarkable moments of self-assertion: “I am more than dust and ashes: I am my best part, I am my soul” (5); “I have not the righteousness of Job, but I have the desire of Job: I would speak to the Almighty, and I would reason with God” (21). Analysis of suffering provokes critical resistance to God, which is then pacified in submission, and then the cycle begins afresh. In the twentieth expostulation, he explains the relation of these dynamics to action by proposing a different kind of geometry. Evermore we are referred for our evidence of others, and of ourselves, to the hand, to action, to works. There is something before it, believing; and there is something after it, suffering; but in the most eminent, and obvious, and conspicuous place stands doing. Why then, O my God, my blessed God, in the ways of my spiritual strength, come I so slow to action? . . . though setting the foot of my compass upon thee, I have gone so far as to the consideration of myself, yet if I depart from thee, my center, all is imperfect. This proceeding to action, therefore, is a returning to thee, and a working upon myself by thy physic, by thy purgative physic, a free and entire evacuation of my soul by confession. (128–9)

Donne returns to the compass metaphor he had so famously used in his “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” not to talk about romantic


Struggle: Donne

desire and absence, but to talk about completion and action in the enabling presence of God. Here, at the end of the peregrinations of the self, the completion of the “perfect circle” is the return to the God at its center, and this alone makes true self-understanding and true action possible. One conventional meaning of returning to God is of course death, and we see Donne with greater clarity, and greater assurance, in his last sermon, preached only a few weeks before his own death in 1631. In it, also quite conventionally, he rethinks life as a passing-through, and somewhat less conventionally, as death itself.61 Death, conversely, therefore becomes a return to God and to life, a simultaneous dissolution and reintegration, a “recompacting of body and soul” (161). This consolatory rethinking is accompanied by a striking shift in Donne’s account of his own experience, in which he now expresses a cautious sense of assurance. All manifestation [of God’s decrees] is either in the word of God, or in the execution of the decree; and when these two concur and meet it is the strongest demonstration that can be: when therefore I find those marks of adoption and spiritual filiation which are delivered in the word of God to be upon me; when I find that real execution of his good purpose upon me, as that actually I do live under the obedience and under the conditions which are evidences of adoption and spiritual filiation; then, so long as I see these marks and live so, I may safely comfort myself in a holy certitude and a modest infallibility of my adoption.

Here Donne gives, steadily and reflectively, what could only be glimpsed fleetingly before: decree, good purpose, obedience, adoption, certitude, infallibility. Lest we assume that, as is so often the case, the public and pastoral nature of preaching leads him to speak differently than he does in private, we can see the same kind of assurance expressed elsewhere in his final days. Walton records Donne’s last will as saying that “I give my gracious God an entire sacrifice of body and soul, with my most humble thanks for that assurance which His blessed Spirit imprints in me now of the salvation of the one, and the Resurrection of the other” (208). Assurance, imprinted in me, now. Walton also reports Donne emphasizing this even more clearly to an unnamed deathbed visitor: though of myself I have nothing to present to [God] but sins and misery, yet I know He looks not upon me now as I am of myself, but as I am in my savior, and hath given me, even at this present time, some testimonies by His Holy Spirit, that I am of the number of His elect. I am therefore full of inexpressible joy, and shall die in peace. (216)

Wrong Turns in “Goodfriday, 1613”


In the sixth of his Devotions, Donne had prayed for “a fear, of which I may not be afraid” (37), and had concluded that such a peacefully holy fear depended fundamentally on the submission of his will to God’s: “Let me not therefore, O my God, be ashamed of these fears, but let me feel them to determine where [Christ’s] fear did, in a present submitting of all to thy will” (38). While it is not given to us to directly know the true state of poets’ hearts, let alone their souls, Herbert apparently found this kind of self-abnegating trust and submission relatively easy; he assumes or arrives at it in poem after poem, and accounts of his mature life seem to corroborate it. But what Herbert could do in a poetic heartbeat (as in the famous lastsecond turnaround of “The Collar”) appears to have taken Donne a lifetime of struggle. After decades of wrestling with God for mastery of his soul, and fighting the absolute claims made by Protestants on God’s behalf, only in his last months does Donne seem to have embraced the assurance that he had so profoundly wanted but found himself unable to accept. After a lifetime of passionate seeking, resisting, and struggling for control – and writing astonishing poetry about it – only at the very end was he able to experience surrender, not as defeat, but as peace.

chapter 5

Blame: Milton

“Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.” Pope, Essay on Man

“The blame is the chooser’s; God is not to blame.” Plato, Republic

One implication of my first chapter (and philosophical incompatibilism generally) is that the agency problem may be unresolvable – that plenary divine agency and meaningful human agency may be impossible to reconcile coherently. Compromise might be the perennial order of the day in practice, but in theory this conflict may require a winner. That is, it may force a choice, as it repeatedly has, of either human autonomy or divine sovereignty – or more starkly, God’s goodness or power – while rendering most attempts at synthesis logically problematic. But what is it about the terms of this problem that makes this so? Perhaps it is the singular absoluteness of the claims made by Christian theology. For one thing, monotheism is necessarily more limited in explanatory options than polytheism, and more difficult to harmonize with genuine human agency. If you believe that human affairs are meddled with by a collection of mountaintop-partying deities with conflicting interests, who are often petty, vindictive, lazy, careless, and vain as well as powerful, and who play favorites with certain human individuals and groups, you have many ways of explaining why things (wars, miraculous encounters, dilatory trips home) happen. You also have considerable room – partly in the vacuum of divine neglect and intra-deity conflict, partly in the notion that those gods respond to various kinds of human merit – for understanding humans as consequential agents, who often exert control over their own destinies, and sometimes influence the gods themselves. Even systems of thought affiliated with, though eventually rejected by, Christianity offer enhanced explanatory options. Manichean dualism, for 184

Blame: Milton


example, or the Gnostic demiurge, propose multiple transcendent agencies that are not necessarily in harmony, and that may even be locked in mortal combat; this, again, provides lots of potential room for humans to maneuver in, and lots of ways to account for why things are the way they are. But Christianity has repeatedly and emphatically rejected such notions as utterly incompatible with its bedrock belief in a single supreme being for whom there can be no serious competition. The God of Christianity and the Bible is fundamentally understood as being uniquely eternal, omnipotent, and purely and infinitely good – that is, as being definitively absolute in time, power, and goodness. This principle is immensely important in the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, but it does carry some inconvenient consequences. The insistence on God’s singularity takes away the flexibility and multilateralism that polytheism offers, while the insistence on his absoluteness hardens the elasticity of relativity. Christianity does not teach that God is “rather powerful” or “more good than others” or “very old”; it contends at its core that he is the very embodiment and definition of each in all its inconceivable fullness. One result of this already observed in the present book is a constitutional intolerance of anything that might impinge even partially on God’s central characteristics: contingency, human autonomy, other beings that compromise his sovereignty. These secondary issues are things that can be affirmed, contested, denied, or negotiated abstractly, by way of belief and philosophical/theological argument. Erasmus and Luther, for example, both believe fundamentally in the goodness, power, and justice of God, but Luther’s emphasis on absolute divine sovereignty inclines him to downplay soteriological contingency and human agency, while Erasmus’ focus on absolute divine goodness requires other culpable agencies that render God’s control (and responsibility) less than total. This divergence is occasioned by a more concrete, less abstractable, less deniable set of challenges which seem empirically factual to an extent that demands reckoning: sin, suffering, death, evil itself. The basic question of theodicy is this: how can the existence of evil, the omnipotence of God, and the absolute goodness of God all be true? Because it appears impossible to reconcile all three, most theodical efforts involve denying or redefining one of the three terms.1 Since evil clearly exists, it would seem to follow that God lacks either the will or the power to eliminate it (or, as creator and sustainer of the universe, to have prevented it from existing in the first place); must we therefore choose between divine power and divine goodness, maintaining one and discarding or qualifying the other? Soteriological debates often involve, if not an absolute choice between God’s goodness and power,


Blame: Milton

then at least an order of precedence between them; evil, the hardly deniable third term of theodicy, further sharpens that binary choice and indeed threatens to force it. If either of these qualities were relative propositions in Christianity, there would be no logical problem; God could be all-powerful but only predominantly good, or absolutely good but just very powerful. But of course, there would be no Christianity as we know it either, without the omnipotent and omnibenevolent biblical deity at its very core. If Christianity is true, God cannot be responsible, through either weakness or lack of goodness, for the existence of evil, but if the creator and ruler of everything didn’t create or cause evil, then how and why does it exist? Where did it come from? What can we do about it? Who is to blame? These questions were incessantly pursued back to their narrative origins in the biblical account of the Fall. Any understanding of the Fall necessarily both reflects and shapes its holder’s views of God, human nature, original sin, baptism, and most importantly for our purposes, agency.2 As we saw in Chapter 1, Pelagius retrospectively developed a very minimal view of the Fall, seeing it as an isolated and relatively minor event rather than a permanent crippling of human capacity, in order to undergird his conviction that humans were capable of avoiding sin by themselves. It was in response to this that Augustine formulated the maximal view that dominated Christian thought for the next dozen centuries: the Fall was an utter (and relatively inexplicable) catastrophe, a descent from absolute perfection to radical depravity that destroyed not only humanity’s innocence but also its ability to extricate itself from evil and its consequences. When Calvin takes up this question, he does so because to understand “the miserable condition in which man is now involved, it is necessary to understand the state in which he was first created” – not for the purpose of blaming God for the profound disjunction of those two states, as some “impious men” do, but of exonerating and glorifying him. Calvin insists that Adam was created in the image of God, physically, morally, and intellectually perfect, a being of free will and “consummate rectitude,” “rightly disposed to obedience” until he became “the voluntary procurer of his own destruction.”3 At the same time, though, Calvin’s conviction of God’s total sovereignty means that nothing can happen contingently or by chance or mere permission, and this leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that God had ordained the Fall. Some confused people, he says, maintain that Adam was possessed of free choice, that he might be the author of his own fate, but that God decreed nothing more than to treat him according to his desert. If so weak a scheme as this be received, what will become of God’s

Blame: Milton


omnipotence, by which he governs all things according to his secret counsel? . . . It is an awful decree, I confess; but no one can deny that God foreknew the future final fate of man before he created him, and that he did foreknow it because it was appointed by his own decree . . . God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and the ruin of his posterity in him, but also arranged it all by the determination of his own will.4

Calvin insists, however, that this does not entail that blame appertains to God, who does what he wills for the inscrutable purposes of his own glory (in this case concurring with Milton that it will result in a net increase of good over evil), and would not leave the crown of creation to mere chance. While God arranges all, Adam and Eve nonetheless fell as secondarily free agents by a free exercise of an uncorrupted will, and without a larger endgame understanding of working for the greater good. This, for Calvin, is the unsearchable mystery of the Fall: that “Man falls . . . according to the appointment of Divine Providence; but he falls by his own fault” (3.23.8).5 However, while this may have been the dominant tradition in seventeenth-century England, it was not, and had never been, the only one. Many were unconvinced that radically determinist hyper-Augustinianism (in which Calvin was preceded by Gottschalk, Bradwardine, Luther, and others) had successfully avoided making God the author of evil; the intuitive alternatives were to soften the rigor of God’s causation, and/or to enhance human freedom, in both the past and the present. William Poole6 has surveyed the astonishing heterodoxy of contemporary lapsarian discourse, and Dennis Danielson7 situates contemporary Arminianism in a countertradition reaching back to Lactantius, Irenaeus, and Epicurus – a tradition that proposes moral dynamism and choice and thus the necessary possibility of evil, even in Paradise, as the key to both meaningful existence and theodical resolution. There are many corollary implications in play among and between all these traditions, including the relative explicability of the Fall; its location on a continuum of determinism and contingency (and thus it is also an argument about causation and responsibility and therefore blame); the relative continuity or discontinuity between our current situation and that in Paradise; and the possibility of soteriologically effective human agency in the postlapsarian world. For Calvin, it is not to be asked how the Fall happened, or why God did not better equip Adam to avoid it,8 but the ex-Calvinist Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost pursues precisely these questions from its very beginning, where the narrator’s first question of his muse is one of blame. He asks his Spirit/muse to “say first what cause / Mov’d our Grand


Blame: Milton

Parents . . . / to fall off / From thir Creator, and transgress his Will?” (1.28–31). To fully answer this question will take some time, however, and it is arguable that the poem never does completely pay off on this, as the ur-origin of evil is never decisively located. Obviously Satan was the proximate cause, but what was the zero-point etiology of his turn against God, and where did his pride and woundedness come from? With Adam and Eve, likewise, we know the immediate trigger of their fall, but why were they so receptive to it? Were all three in some sense miscreated, with wills not only able to fall but inclined to it? Did God, like some Calvinists of Milton’s time, feel that some reprobate Them were necessary to constitute the godly Us?9 Or is the point in the end the inexplicable generations of the will itself, its capacity to do things for which it can justly be held accountable, but without understandable cause?10 Perhaps it is the very murkiness of the causal question that leads the narrator to re-pose it in a more readily answered form. “Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt? / Th’infernal Serpent; hee it was” (1.33–4). The prompt, emphatic double fingering of the culprit offers the comfort of clarity, but it is a hollow comfort; we already knew this, and in any case the substitution of plot facts for explanation only defers the larger question. These problems are the principal objective of the epic, which is centrally focused on the correct assignment of blame, and famously announces its author’s aim as not just to tell the story of the Fall, but more importantly to “justify the ways of God to men,” to exonerate God from blame for the Fall and all its aftereffects. This is a tall order, and all the more so since Milton effectively ties one hand behind his back by telling us in the preceding phrase that he will “assert eternal Providence.” He will (with typical Miltonic modesty) solve the problem of theodicy, but not by denying evil or the goodness or power of God; he will do it, incredibly, by affirming each point of the impossible theodical triangle, and the key to it all will be the importance of agential human freedom and choice, which acts as a kind of lubricant that makes the whole system work. This chapter will examine the role of blame in Paradise Lost’s discourses of theodicy and agency, focusing in turn on its function in divine, human, and demonic deployments before arriving at their convergence in Book 10. Doing so, I suggest, is less thumpingly obvious than it may sound: while both the poem and the mountain of criticism on it are riddled with ricocheting blame, little or none of that criticism has taken the dynamics of blame as its central focus. I will argue that while Paradise Lost is undoubtedly a theodicy – a mode typically quite bluntly intent on either laying blame on God or deflecting it from him – it is also interested in

Freedom and Divine Blame – III, V


blame more broadly and minutely as an indexical mode of agency and responsibility (or their disavowal) among various parties. Such complex undercurrents may be necessitated by Milton’s Arminian theology (though I will not explicitly argue that), but in any case they offer us a more nuanced register of the poem’s complex dynamics of agency that may deepen our understanding of Paradise Lost as both a theodicy and an ethics.11 This goes well beyond, without excluding, the mere fingerpointing of not me; it extends to the conditions, logic, dynamics, ethics, and inversions of blame itself.12

Freedom and Divine Blame – III, V The normative epicenter of blame discourse in Paradise Lost is God’s disquisition in 3.80–134, in which he foresees the imminent Fall and offers a lengthy answer to the question, “whose fault?” (3.96). This speech has displeased quite a few readers and critics, who have found it and its speaker variously distasteful, whiny, bullying, defensive, self-justifying, dull, self-righteous, blame-displacing, and so forth, and used it as a focal point for broader discussions of how we should regard Milton and his God. William Blake famously suggested that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and in his 1821 Defense of Poetry Percy Shelley argued more aggressively that Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton’s genius. (63–4)

This line of argument was most energetically advanced in the twentieth century by William Empson, who found Milton’s God “noticeably [but only marginally] less wicked” than the cruel, tyrannous, bloodthirsty, evil-generating, manipulative, and generally “very wicked” God of Christianity.13 In Empson’s reading, Milton felt (if not entirely consciously) the same way, and the greatness of Paradise Lost lies in its candid exposure of the ways in which “Christians hide from themselves the insane wickedness of their God.”14


Blame: Milton

While most sensitive readers recognize that Milton’s heavenly characters are less compelling (at least as characters) than his infernal ones, the subversive critical countertradition of course provoked traditionalist defenses. C.S. Lewis suggested, with a nearly audible sigh, that “Many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God: infinite sovereignty de jure, combined with infinite power de facto, and love which, by its very nature, includes wrath also – it is not only in poetry that these things offend.”15 Stanley Fish, in the most influential rereading of Paradise Lost of the last half-century (Surprised by Sin), argued that the poem is a pedagogical machine that tempts its readers to be Empsonian Satanists16 in order to train them to be Lewisian/ Augustinian Christians, aware of their own sinfulness and need for grace to do right.17 And Dennis Danielson made a book-length argument, its very title a rejoinder to Empson, to the effect that Milton’s theodicy is coherent and just if one understands the centrality of Milton’s Arminian free-will defense to it. All of these readings, on both sides, are responses to Milton’s selfannounced project of “justify[ing] the ways of God to men.” Shelley, Empson, and others resolve the problem of theodicy by simply denying God’s goodness, without which there is no contradiction, and argue that whether Milton intended it or not Paradise Lost narrates its own failure as an impossible quest to justify the unjustifiable. Lewis, Danielson, and others deny the impossibility – not to say the difficulty – of that quest, and maintain that in one way or another, the poem succeeds in its manifest aim. John Leonard offers an excellent survey of the critical history of this question, and proposes a very useful triangular schematic for organizing it: One critical tradition holds that the poem is good because it makes God good, a second holds that it is bad because it makes God bad, while a third holds that it is good because it makes God bad . . . Fowler and Waldock both see moral confusions as a liability, but disagree as to whether Milton has them and so disagree as to the poem’s value. Empson and Waldock agree that Milton has moral confusions, but disagree as to whether these are desirable and so disagree about the poem’s value. Meanwhile, Empson and Fowler agree that Paradise Lost is a great poem, but disagree as to the value and existence of its moral confusions.18

“This,” Leonard understatedly concludes, “is an intriguing tangle,” but one frequently reflected in critics’ biased alignments of faith and viewpoint. “Critics of the first tradition (those who admire the poem and its God) are, for the most part, devout believers. Critics of the second tradition (those who dislike the poem and its God) are either nonbelievers or believers who take offence at Milton’s beliefs. Critics of the third tradition (those who love to hate God) are atheists who are grateful to Milton for exposing God’s dark side.”19

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But while it is undoubtedly true that one’s predispositions, including the religious ones, will shape one’s regard of Milton’s God, and while all are free to conclude as they see fit whether the poem succeeds or fails (or to avoid the question altogether), it seems to me that whether one likes or dislikes Milton’s God, or Christianity’s, has no necessary bearing on his importance in a poem that announces as its central aim the vindication of that deity. My own view is that the Empsonian reading requires an implausible excess of irony: it asks us to believe that Milton, whether consciously or not, did not really believe what he announces as his own first principles. I simply find this a highly forced reading, as it requires us to wink, or roll our eyes knowingly, or perhaps just feel ironically hip, every time the poem tells us that Satan is bad and God is good, which it of course incessantly does. This does not mean that these categories are not complicated (they are obviously highly so, and the compellingness of Satan is the central problem of the poem’s critical history), or that Milton necessarily pulls the feat off successfully (far better to read it as a mixed bag or an outright failure than to read it as at every point not meaning what it says), or that one is obligated to agree with the poem. But if we want to understand Paradise Lost, as opposed to using it as a stick with which to beat Milton and/or God, we must attend carefully to what Milton’s God says. Of particular interest to my purposes here is the function of blame discourses as indicators of agency, and these radiate outward in the poem, as they must, from the Father’s normative pronouncements in Book 3. (Few readers, and even fewer critics, regard Milton’s representation of God as a literary triumph. But it is tolerable, and arguably necessary, for the simple reason that God is the only character in the poem with the authority to pronounce definitively on such difficult and foundational matters; to leave that job even to Gabriel and Abdiel would be to risk leaving matters as a mere difference of angelic opinion with Satan and the other fallen ones.)20 There God, “foreseeing” (3.79), tells the Son in no uncertain terms that Man will heark’n to [Satan’s] glozing lies, And easily transgress the sole Command, Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall Hee and his faithless Progeny: whose fault? Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of mee All he could have; I made him just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.


The understood antecedent of “he” and “him” must be Man, but the tense shift from “will fall” to “ingrate, he had of mee / all he could have” is disorienting; why would God’s supratemporal foreknowledge suddenly swing, before the Fall has occurred, from future to past regard? One


Blame: Milton

suspects that God, in a moment of sorrow and anger, is momentarily conflating the as-yet-unfallen Adam with the already-fallen, and demonstratedly ungrateful, Satan. And indeed, he immediately makes the connection himself by observing that “such I created all th’Ethereal Powers / And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail’d; / Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.” As if anticipating an objection that this fracturing of outcomes might be indicative of a serious design flaw in the system, God then explains how it is not: Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love, Where only what they needs must do, appear’d, Not what they would? What praise could they receive? What pleasure I from such obedience paid, When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice) Useless and vain, of freedom both despoil’d, Made passive both, had serv’d necessity, Not mee. They therefore as to right belong’d, So were created, nor can justly accuse Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate; As if Predestination over-rul’d Thir will, dispos’d by absolute Decree Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed Thir own revolt, not I.


This is the core of Milton’s ethical theology. If angels and humans are to be ethically meaningful beings, responsible for their choices and actions whether good or bad, they must be free to use their gifts of reason and will in daily deciding whether to serve God or not. Accordingly, they will receive the consequences of praise or blame for their decisions, and God will take authentic pleasure in knowing that those faithful to him chose to be so because they wanted to. Milton’s God wants no part in necessity, which he perceives as antithetical to his own creative and moral commitments to freedom and agency; better to risk failure, or even to undertake failure foreknown,21 than to bother creating a choicelessly obedient machine. Blame, in short, is the necessary corollary of meaning, and risk of failure the price of worthwhile success for free beings. Far from weaseling out of his own responsibility, God is insisting on that of his creation: “they themselves ordain’d thir fall” because they had the capacity and the freedom to stand or not. He has created the characters but refuses to dictate their lines, decreeing their existence to be instead an ongoing (if thoroughly previewed) improvisational drama under his sovereignty, and consequently they will inescapably be “Authors to themselves in all / Both

Freedom and Divine Blame – III, V


what they judge and what they choose” (3.122–3), for better or for worse. Skeptical readers may not embrace God’s contention that his choice to make ethically responsible creatures exempts him from blame or just accusation, but Milton himself, many years earlier, certainly did. Even though his comments in Areopagitica on the perversion of Arminius indicate that Milton was likely still some sort of Calvinist in 1644, he was nonetheless already convinced that the freedom and responsibility of critical reading had an important prototype in Eden. Many there be that complain of divine providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions [puppet shows]. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force. God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.22

Here we see, decades before Paradise Lost, a compact theodicy which is deeply linked, not to voluntarism or some providential notion of felix culpa, but to the critical freedom of the rational and godly subject – a universe in which meaning and virtue are dependent on choice, both before and after the Fall. This is so central to the wisdom and justice of God, and to the ethical value of humanity, that the young Milton will not suffer accusation or complaint against God for making it so. But we can see why his Calvinism was not to last. God ends his initial speech by declaring that since the angels fell “by thir own suggestion,” while humans would be “deceiv’d” into it, “Man therefore shall find grace, / The other none” (3.129–31).23 When the Son, with joy and relief but also some measure of concern, asks in effect just how this will work, the Father responds: Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will, Yet not of will in him, but grace in me Freely voutsaf’t . . . Upheld by me . . . By me upheld, that he may know how frail His fall’n condition is, and to me owe All his deliv’rance, and to none but me. Some I have chosen of peculiar grace Elect above the rest; so is my will: The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warn’d Thir sinful state, and to appease betimes


Blame: Milton Th’incensed Deity while offer’d grace Invites; for I will clear thir senses dark, What may suffice, and soft’n stony hearts To pray, repent, and bring obedience due . . .. And I will place within them as a guide My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear, Light after light well us’d they shall attain, And to the end persisting, safe arrive.


Milton’s postlapsarian grace resembles both Catholicism and Protestantism, and differs from Pelagianism, in its explicit insistence on the sinful fallenness of humanity, and the consequently inescapable need for grace (“grace in me / Freely voutsaf’t . . . Upheld by me . . . none but me”). But its Arminian Protestantism distinguishes itself from Calvinism in its refusal to regard elect and reprobate as absolute, comprehensive, unchangeably preordained categories in which the individual has no say. Instead, God here describes an initial partition of those who are through no doing of their own positively elected to salvation, and a remainder who are called to it.24 The latter group, presumably comprising the bulk of humanity, will be given the tools they need to accept grace – revelation, warning, apprehension, conscience, viable faculties of will and reason – and will then individually do so or not, at their own discretion and consequence (“sav’d who will”). Those who go to hell will have earned it, authors to themselves; here, as before, blame presumes, attributes, and is indeed inseparable from free responsibility. Milton sees no decree of reprobation, only decrees of grace and freedom. When God asks “whose fault?” he is not just finger-pointing;25 he is making an attribution of agential capacity, and an unforced promise to see it through (“by me upheld”) for those who use it rightly. In both creation and redemption, meaning and consequences are predicated on the free (albeit enabled, assisted, and guided) choices of human agents. Still, that fault must be punished, and the economy of blame is also at the heart of the atoning grace that emerges in Book 3. The “unexampl’d love” (3.410) of the Son in asking the Father to “on mee let thine anger fall” (3.237) is in effect a taking of blame for which he is not responsible. The Son is the only character in Paradise Lost to volunteer for unearned blame, and in this willing divestiture of perfect merit, and investiture with undeserved blame, he has voluntarily “quitted all to save / A world from utter loss, and hast been found / By Merit more than Birthright Son of God” (3.307–9). In this sublime act of self-abnegating love, the economy of blame is shifted and radically transformed, and the Son earns, with interest, by merit what he held by right. It is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s

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endgame desire that “Mercy first and last shall brightest shine” (3.134), and the basis for a stark contrast with nondivine blame in the poem.26 At the end of Book 4, Satan, having surveilled Paradise, is intercepted, identified, and escorted out of Eden. The Argument of Book 5 tells us that “God to render Man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him,” and this, along with his sour smile in line 718, seems one of his least pleasant moments. God already knows infallibly that the Fall is going to happen, so presumably no admonition is going to (or is intended to) change that; what then is his interest in rendering his creation inexcusable? Is it insecurity, selfexoneration, sheer viciousness? God’s actual charge to Raphael suggests otherwise: the angel is to remind Adam of “his happy state, / Happiness in his power left free to will, / Left to his own free Will” (5.234–6). But this will is, like that of the angels, “mutable . . . whence warn him to beware” the enemy on whom there is now an all-points bulletin. “This let him know,” God instructs the angel, “Lest wilfully transgressing he pretend / Surprisal, unadmonisht, unforewarn’d” (5.243–5). The narrator, unlike Empson, sees God in this as having “fulfill’d / All Justice” (5.246–7), which seems hard to square with the malicious-seeming desire to “render Man inexcusable” unless we note carefully what God is trying to ensure and prevent here. Preventing the Fall is out of the question, it already having been foreseen and declared as inevitable fact. What can be prevented, though, is insufficiency, any lack of information or understanding that might falsely distract from the responsibility of the will. Humanity will not fall because of happenstance, necessity, violence, poor communication, or inadequate provision; it will stand or fall by choice. Once again, what looks like punitive divine blameshifting turns out on closer inspection to be a robust insistence on human capacity, freedom, and responsibility. Raphael, for his part, faithfully executes his charge, recapitulating for Adam what God has already articulated, and further clarifies that service and obedience to God are manifestations of love, which is itself an act of will. That thou art happy, owe to God; That thou continu’st such, owe to thyself, That is, to thy obedience; therein stand . . . God made thee perfet, not immutable; And good he made thee, but to persevere He left it in thy power, ordain’d thy will By nature free, not over-rul’d by Fate Inextricable, or strict necessity; Our voluntary service he requires,


Blame: Milton Not our necessitated . . . . . . [we angels’] happy state Hold, as you yours, while our obedience holds; On other surety none; freely we serve, Because we freely love, as in our will To love or not; in this we stand or fall.

(5.520–2, 5.524–30, 5.536–40)

Obedience, righteousness, perfection, and even innocence are active, not passive, states, Raphael maintains; they are tested and renewed in every moment of significant choice, and this active moral responsibility is essential to angels and humans alike. Adam’s response indicates that this is all well understood: “nor knew I not / To be both will and deed created free” (5.548–9). Considering that, the existing dispensation seems to him so manifestly “just” that he is “assur’d” (5.552–3) that he and Eve will never forget to love and obey. Nothing to worry about here.

Responsibility and Human Blame – IV, IX, X The unfallen Adam, while he has much to learn (such as just what death is [4.424–5]), appears quite clearly to both understand and affirm the basic outlines of what the poem has taught us thus far. When we first hear him speak, he is telling his wife of an important conclusion he has come to: that their creator must be “infinitely good, and of his good / As liberal and free as infinite” (4.414–15). The evidence of creation itself is of course a primary evidence pool for this conviction, and will be expounded at length in Book 4, but somewhat surprisingly the evidence Adam cites first is the very arbitrariness (in the literal sense of “proceeding from will”) of the current arrangement. He marvels that God has unaccountably “rais’d us from the dust and plac’t us here / In all this happiness, who at his hand / Have nothing merited, nor can perform / Aught whereof hee hath need” (4.416–19). If God needs nothing from us, and we deserve nothing from him, how can we account for his desire to create us in this glorious garden? Only in terms of incomprehensible divine goodness and generosity. (Satan, of course, sees this very differently.) These blessings come at a price, but in Adam’s view it is a very modest one, “this one, this easy charge” not to eat of one tree among many. And he has a deftly correct understanding of the significance of both tree and rule: not ignorance, but hierarchy. In a paradise of vast blessings, all things are permissible save one, the “only sign of our obedience left / Among so many signs of power and rule / Conferr’d upon us, and Dominion giv’n”

Responsibility and Human Blame – IV, IX, X


(4.428–30). The very arbitrariness of the prohibition demonstrates its point: that just as God created out of nothing but sovereign will, so his sovereignty is manifested in his rightful promulgation of a single, willful, symbolic rule. Since nothing else is forbidden, eating from the Tree is thus their sole possible means of disobedience, of flouting their creator’s right to remind them of who he is and what they owe to him; by the same token, since there are no other wrong choices available to them, refraining from it is, as Adam recognizes, therefore also their single possible means of deliberately willed obedience.27 So, he tells Eve, “let us not think hard / One easy prohibition, who enjoy / Free leave so large to all things else, and choice / Unlimited of manifold delights” (4.432–5). Besides one little rule, it’s literally all good, a world of choice unlimited and the pure pleasures of gardening and praise, and Eve endorses Adam’s worldview as “just and right” (4.443). But the rule itself, both in the hierarchy it points to and the ethical demands it inaugurates, engenders the only choice that matters.28 Central to the experience of reading Paradise Lost is an overwhelming sense of dramatic irony; we know, and not just because the narrator and God have told us, how this story will turn out. And knowing what we know, the run-up to the Fall in Books 4–9 seems chock-full of warning signs that have generated vast speculation as to where the fatal flaw in Eden really lay. Was it Eve’s vanity and narcissism, as evidenced in her infatuation with her own image (4.449–91)? Or, as Satan has it, the invidious deprivation at the heart of God’s injunction (4.513–27)? Or the angels’ failure to keep Satan out of Eden, thus enabling his toadish whispering in Eve’s ear (4.799–809), and her subsequent proleptic Fall in dream (5.28–93), and his specifically tailored temptation in Book 9? Or the overconfidence of God and the Son (5.711–42)? Or Adam’s seemingly insatiable curiosity (7.80–97)? Or Eve’s relative unstudiousness (8.39–57) and preference for Adam’s osculatory pedagogy over angelic discourse? Or Adam’s discontent with his solitary existence (8.357–436)? Or – a point that will be sharply revisited after the Fall – his uxorious devotion to Eve’s beauties, which prompts his self-description as “here only weak” (8.532) and his speculation that perhaps “Nature fail’d in mee” (8.534; this prompts a sharp reprimand from Raphael, who warns Adam to “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; / Do thou but thine, and be not diffident / Of Wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou / Dismiss not her” [8.561–4])?29 Any one of these, as we read them, might plausibly be seen as, and has in fact been argued to be, the crucial bug in the system; taken in aggregate, they might seem damning evidence of grievously defective creation and providence, as the Fall is causally backtraced to its seemingly inevitable origin.


Blame: Milton

But our reading of these scenes is compromised in multiple ways that make it very difficult for us to replicate the experience of Adam and Eve, or of the poem. The fact that we know where things are heading generates an effect of pseudo-omniscience, or at least foreknowledge, and as we read the middle third of Paradise Lost we cannot help but make causal attributions: aha, here is a/the precedent condition that leads to the Fall! Indeed, it is quite common for critics to point to some prelapsarian moment and proclaim Adam and Eve “already fallen.”30 Fish observes that this is yet another version of the blame-God argument, and, as is his wont, sees each of these putative “causes” as examples of temptation, deliberately set by Milton, to be suspicious of the word of the poem and consequently of God; to see the Fall as effectively caused is to deny both the freedom and the responsibility of Adam and Eve.31 As I have already indicated, I do not think that one must go all the way with Fish’s pedagogical totalization to agree that his conclusions are truer to the poem and, ironically, less interpretively arrogant or violent than those of Empson, Shelley, and Blake. Here, if we can resist the urge to trace causes and fall into post hoc errors, we might see these middle books as doing exactly what the narrator and God have been telling us all along: demonstrating at once humans’ possibility (but not necessity) of failure, and sufficiency for success. Were we to somehow experience these books not from an unwarranted position of omniscience (constructed from skepticism and ferocious backreading), but from the limited, linear perspective of Adam and Eve, not one of these “flaws” is necessarily both true and determinative; each is a possible contributor to the Fall, but none necessitates it. Fish’s monomaniacal subordination of everything in the poem to a single pedagogical end has led his critics32 to accuse him, often in the name of contingency and interpretive freedom, of straitjacketing both the poem and readers’ responses to it. This is not entirely unfair, but my focus here is not on education but on agency, and one salutary effect of Fish’s exertions is, paradoxically enough, the restoration of free agential choice (and concomitant responsibility) to Adam and Eve. Everything else, including the tendencies to trace causes and blame God, is a distraction from the properly exercised rational freedom on which Paradise Lost everywhere insists. Even if, as Fish has more recently contended, all ethical choices are the same choice, and there is always a right and wrong option, that does not entail that there is no choice. It is frankly unclear to me whether this requires the conclusion that the Fall – which is essentially a persuading of Eve to see her own being and selfinterest as divergent from, and more important than, God, brought about

Responsibility and Human Blame – IV, IX, X


by satanically invidious and tempting addresses to Eve as “sole Wonder . . . who should be seen / A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d” (9.533, 9.546–7) which convince her that she is being kept down by an insecure, unjust, and untrustworthy God – cannot have occurred in any sense prior to the eating of the fruit. Does Eve retain her unfallen, unguilty nature, and her uncompromised power of choice, right up to 9.780? It is impossible not to feel the change from her godly sense of abundant choice (9.620) and clear understanding that “of this Tree we may not taste nor touch; / God so commanded, and left that Command / Sole Daughter of his voice; the rest, we live / Law to ourselves, our Reason is our Law” (9.651–4; Eve is described as “yet sinless” in 9.659) to her pre-Fall apostrophe to the “best of fruits” (9.745) and her implicit accusation of God and impugning of his motives: In plain then, what forbids he but to know, Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise? Such prohibitions bind not . . . What fear I then, rather what know to fear Under this ignorance of Good and Evil, Of God or Death, of Law or Penalty? Here grows the Cure of all, this Fruit Divine . . .

(9.758–60, 9.773–6)

Gone is her faith in an infinitely good creator, replaced by a corrosively skeptical conviction of his jealousy, impotence, and finally illegitimacy, which in turn underwrites her taking of proscribed action. Transgression had always been possible but unthinkable under an assumption of God’s justice and goodness, to which the only proper responses are obedience and love (see 5.548–53); Eve’s implicit blaming of God’s motives is the necessary precondition for transgression to become not only thinkable but desirable.33 It is not until after the actual consumption that the narrator confirms that “all was lost,” and Eve goes all the way and refers to God as “our great Forbidder” (9.784, 9.815) – suggesting that the act itself was decisive – but it is difficult not to feel that much was already lost in Eve’s last preconsumption speech. Still, while the act was yet undone, perhaps Adam’s earlier assertion still applies: “Evil into the mind of God or Man / May come and go, so unapprov’d, and leave / No spot or blame behind” (5.117–19). Since she did approve that evil, enthusiastically, and went back for seconds, this might fairly be called an academic question. But once the deed is done, the apportionment of blame begins. One strikingly immediate effect (albeit one not without plausible prelapsarian precedents) of Eve’s fall is her nowdecisive tendency to think of herself not in relationship with Adam or God, but as alienated from them: God is “our great Forbidder,” heaven is “high and


Blame: Milton

remote,” and her relationship with Adam is not partnership but leveraged competition, for “inferior who is free?” After Adam’s fall, history’s first dirty sex, and the mother of all post-coital regrets, Adam’s first words are words of blame and perhaps history’s first bad pun: “O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear / To that false Worm” (9.1067–8).34 The pun itself is an act of radical blame, collapsing Eve and evil into one another in response to the full impact of loss. Adam reports his own loss of good, honor, innocence, faith, and purity, and the narrator reports their replacement with “Anger, Hate, / Mistrust, Suspicion, Discord” (9.1124–5), they having already surrendered their “sovran Reason” to “sensual Appetite.” Accordingly, Adam’s next speech traces the Fall back to Eve’s prior error of insisting on independent premeridian work. Would thou hadst heark’n’d to my words, and stay’d With me, as I besought thee, when that strange Desire of wand’ring this unhappy Morn, I know not whence possess’d thee; we had then Remain’d still happy, not as now, despoil’d Of all our good, sham’d, naked, miserable.


To Adam, as perhaps to us, Eve’s “strange desire” is inexplicable, and the key to the grand failure: no separation, no vulnerable Eve, no Fall. This appears to validate his position in their morning exchange, in which Eve had staked herself on autonomy as a necessary effect of God’s goodness. And what is Faith, Love, Virtue unassay’d Alone, without exterior help sustain’d? Let us not then suspect our happy State Left so imperfet by the Maker wise, As not secure to single or combin’d.


Eve’s position here is that to doubt her own adequacy to stand would amount to accusing God of bad creating. Her confidence in herself is an expression of confidence in God, and a faithful defiance of the enemy she knows is lurking about. But while she emphasizes her and Adam’s sufficiency to stand, even “alone,” Adam stresses their freedom to fall (9.343–69). God “nothing imperfet or deficient left / Of all that he Created,” he asserts, and we are “secure from outward force,” but the danger lies within us, in a will that might be misinformed by a misled reason and thus freely do wrong; seeing how this is so, let’s “seek not Temptation” to double down on our individual self-sufficiency, and if temptation finds us, let’s confront it together with the double protection of two rational faculties. He fears solipsistic overconfidence in her; she suspects disrespect, of both her and God, in him.

Responsibility and Human Blame – IV, IX, X


While Eve’s motives here may be noble, Milton is clearly on Adam’s side here. The poem has thus far demonstrated repeatedly the multifarious forms of “exterior help” that assist them, and his description of Eve as “fairest unsupported Flow’r” (9.432), willingly self-disengaged from those helps to go it alone, is one of the poem’s more ominously tragic moments. But if we return to the end of the book, we see that Eve is having none of Adam’s argument that staying together would have averted the Fall and guaranteed their eternal happiness: “who knows,” she says, “hadst thou been there, / Or here th’attempt, thou couldst not have discern’d / Fraud in the Serpent, speaking as he spake” (9.1146–50). And Milton, while clearly disapproving of a series of her actions, cannot really disagree with this either: having committed himself to a divinely foreseen Fall, “who knows” what the means to it might have been? Eve could have stood, but chose to fall; Adam might have done either, whether alone or by her side, and since that scenario was neither ordained nor foreseen by God, its outcome is completely unknowable. Who knows. Eve then advances a pair of arguments based on her relationship to Adam that are both revealing and contradictory. The first has to do with her own independence: “Was I to have never parted from thy side? / As good have grown there still a lifeless rib” (9.1153–4). The contrast with her morning arguments for separate work is quite remarkable, as this latter statement appears to be completely devoid of theological content. God’s honor and identity are not at stake here, only Eve’s, and they depend on a highly severable identity and practice. This is a further extension of the postlapsarian alienation discussed above, but with further uncomplimentary implications for Adam. You can’t seriously think I was to always hover around you for support, she says, and never stand entirely on my own – that’s an existence so meaninglessly derivative that I might as well be an object, or dead. So much for “shee for God in him;” the fallen Eve seeks meaning and identity not in relation or obedience but in autonomy. But her second argument makes a contrary, and more telling, case. Being as I am, why didst not thou the Head Command me absolutely not to go, Going into such danger as thou said’st? Too facile then thou didst not much gainsay, Nay, didst permit, approve, and fair dismiss. Had thou been firm and fixt in thy dissent, Neither had I transgress’d, nor thou with me.



Blame: Milton

Eve’s contention that firmer male headship would have averted the Fall35 contradicts her previous argument, and is subject to the same criticism that she leveled at Adam’s blame (i.e., that we know, even if they don’t, that the Fall is going to happen one way or another, and they cannot know that or how it won’t). But while Eve’s claim that Adam “approved” her plan has no clear basis, he had in fact ended that quarrel by dismissing Eve, telling her to “Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more; / Go in thy native innocence, rely / On what thou hast of virtue, summon all, / For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine” (9.372–5).36 Eve may be tangling herself in contradiction here, but she is also revealing Adam’s, and he will receive further censure on this point in the upcoming books. Adam’s response in lines 1162–87 is that (a) I just voluntarily Fell for you, and hard, and this is my thanks? (b) you’re seriously blaming me for your Fall? (c) coercive prevention of your desire would have been incompatible with your freedom, (d) my error, and now crime, was in overestimating your perfection, and (e) that’s women for you: won’t let you control them, but will blame you for not doing so if anything bad happens. The first two are comprehensible in themselves; (d) will be taken up by the Son in Book 10; (c) and (e) are most directly germane to the concerns of this chapter, as they engage most clearly with the dynamics of blame and agency, and are thus worth considering with some care. Here is Adam: . . . am I now upbraided, as the cause Of thy transgressing? Not enough severe, It seems, in thy restraint: what could I more? I warn’d thee, I admonish’d thee, foretold The danger, and the lurking Enemy That lay in wait; beyond this had been force, And force upon free Will hath here no place. . . . restraint she will not brook, And left to herself, if evil thence ensue, Shee first his weak indulgence will accuse. (9.1168–74, 9.1184–6)

We immediately notice here the similarity of Adam’s words to God’s previous explanations and admonitions, and indeed one can quite easily imagine these lines coming from God’s mouth and prompting Paradise Lost itself.37 Adam’s claim is that he, like God, has done all the equipping needed for meaningful success, and has declined to forcibly prevent failure because doing so would also preclude moral meaning; as a result, his justice and even his innocence have been called into question by the party who actually sinned. Perhaps this hierarchical analogy is legitimated by the prelapsarian principle of “hee for God only, shee for God in him”: Adam

Responsibility and Human Blame – IV, IX, X


acts subject to God’s authority, Eve subject to Adam’s, and each is constituted by their obedience or disobedience to that authority, which prohibits but declines to prevent.38 But as Eve observes, while the principle of freedom may be compelling, the parallel with God has a flaw. God has given them a well-understood and utterly clear (if also necessarily disobeyable) command not to eat, thus putting full responsibility for obedience or disobedience on the subject, but Adam did not quite do the same for Eve; he simply advised her not to go off alone, made the case against it and then capitulated, thus leaving her choice a relative proposition of competing ideas rather than an absolute one.39 While it would be unfair to say Adam sinned in this, or that it exonerates Eve from culpability for her actions, he could have done more – but should he have? Does the logic of uncoerced (i.e., violable) command erase human freedom, moral agency, and responsibility? Neither Milton nor his God seem to think so. On the contrary, they suggest that it is precisely what defines and constitutes those things. Eden may be a world of choice unlimited, but unlimited choice has no moral content; that crucial differentiation is provided by prohibition and law, to which the morally responsible subject must freely respond either affirmatively or transgressively. Adam and Eve’s “mutual accusation” (9.1187), then, contains some points of truth but is ultimately “fruitless” and “vain” and indeed beside the point. It underscores something that we all know about the logical structure of blame-levying: that it almost always points to someone else. It is typically a justification of the self and its ways, a denial of responsibility, cloaked in a pseudomoral and pseudo-objective location of fault somewhere else, anywhere but here. Even in its most appropriate operations – identifying a genuinely guilty party who has done wrong and/or harmed others – blame carries a whispered corollary of not me, or I am a victim of a malicious agency, not my own, or my failure is an innocent consequence of the failure of others, or I’m really not involved. In the immediate aftermath of the Fall, Adam and Eve cannot escape their sin and shame, but each does try to displace their own guilt (interestingly, though, they focus on each other instead of the Serpent; perhaps they have enough insight left to implicitly understand that what is crucial is their own choice and action, not that of a third party). My wrongdoing was caused by that of another party; if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have. Blaming others, in short – and this seems more obvious than it is – is a disavowal of agency, a denial or deferral or displacement of the freedom and responsibility that are intrinsic to ethically significant action. Adam and Eve’s “vain contest” is so because they are “neither self-condemning,” and in this evasion and denial they are


Blame: Milton

trying to subvert the ethical structure of creation. To exercise agential freedom and then disclaim responsibility for it is to disown what God had considered most important for a free and ethically meaningful universe.

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX Satan’s first appearance in the chronology of Paradise Lost plays like a movie. God convenes the angels to declare the exaltation of the Son, to whom “shall bow / All knees in Heav’n, and shall confess him Lord” (5.607–8); the camera pans out to survey heaven-wide celebrations of joy in music, dance, and feasting; after all retire to blissful slumber, it then zooms in on the brooding insomnia of one very displeased angel. The narrator’s first description is crucially unclear on some important points: “he of the first, / If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power, / In favor and preeminence, yet fraught / With envy against the Son of God” (5.659–62). What does it mean to be “of the first, if not the first”? Should we take “if” to mean “but,” or is “if not” an idiomatic intensifier which strengthens the initial “of” into a stressed second “the” (i.e., if not the first, i.e., he was both of the first rank, and first among that top rank)? Also unexplained is why Satan, despite all his blessings and preeminence, is “fraught / With envy against the Son” – that is, it offers us no clarity as to the origins of his envy, and consequent resolution to “dislodge, and leave / Unworship’t, unobey’d the Throne supreme, / Contemptuous” (5.669–71). We do not even know if this envy has any pre-existence: this moment may be that origin, or it may just be the last straw (Satan seems to suggest the latter, which defuses the etiological potential of the former). But in either case, the elevation of the Son to a position of absolute authority provides a critical break in the heavenly career of Satan, who “through pride . . . thought himself impair’d” (5.665) by being required to bow to one of his former peers, and from here flows a sudden rush of ur-primal sin: malice, disdain, disobedience, contempt, lies, separation, and finally full rebellion against God. This is a highly political moment, of course, and so much so that one wonders if one of God’s motivations in exalting the Son was simply a demonstration of his own absolute sovereignty, and a more focused way of determining the allegiance of his angels. (This is not quite to suggest a deliberate provoking,40 but obedience requires plausible options for disobedience, and one might see the exaltation as structurally very similar to the Tree: here’s what I’ve decreed and done; you can take it or leave it, but understand that leaving it means you are denying

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX


my absolute prerogative as your creator to dispose things however I like, and thus voluntarily disaffiliating yourself from me and my sovereign goodness.) Even Satan, in high choler, allows that the Sons of Heaven can be, “if not equal all, yet free, / Equally free; for Orders and Degrees / Jar not with liberty, but well consist” (5.791–3) – so long as none is absolutely ascendant over his free peers to the point of requiring “knee-tribute” and “prostration vile” (5.782). The Son, certainly, is the most proximate provocation for Satan’s antimonarchism, but the Father is not exempted from it (“Too much to one, but double how endur’d, / To one and to his image now proclaim’d?” [5.783–4]). He is also implicated in the extended logic of Satan’s broader constitutional question: “Who can in reason then or right . . . / . . . introduce / Law and Edict on us, who without law / Err not?” (5.794, 5.797–9). Here too we wonder but simply do not know what the prior state of affairs was. Were there, as Satan implies, no rules? If so, then Satan is perhaps making God’s case for him: one cannot err without law, because one cannot disobey when there is nothing to obey; one simply exists and goes about one’s business.41 Whether that is freedom is debatable, because without a mechanism of differentiation all acts would appear to be equally neutral, which is to say equally meaningless except perhaps as passive expressions of the goodness of the actor’s creator.42 This helps explain why what is at stake here is not just ethics and politics but also ontology and ontogeny – why Satan must later assert that his being is uncreated, “self-begot, self-rais’d” (5.860), radically self-acted into existence by a self-enclosed and self-authorizing agent of the first order. He develops these claims in response to Abdiel’s rebuke of his “argument blasphemous, false and proud” (5.809), in which the faithful seraph argues that created beings have no business telling their creator about freedom or justice, especially when experience teaches so clearly that creator’s good intentions; furthermore, the Son through whom the angels were created is, unlike them, “begotten, not made,”43 and his special status makes his headship even better and more angel-dignifying than God’s by his partaking of both natures. Satan in response affects incredulity – “That we were form’d then say’st thou? and the work / Of secondary hands, by task transferr’d / From Father to his Son? strange point and new!” (5.853–5) – and his affrontedness is palpable. In matters of origin as well as politics, total indebtedness to the Father is bad enough; such qualitative and ontological subordination to the Son is intolerable. Satan advances a skeptical theory of autogeny to extricate himself from both, and to assert a radical autonomy for himself.


Blame: Milton Remember’st thou Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being? We know no time when we were not as now; Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course Had circl’d his full Orb, the birth mature Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons. Our puissance is our own, our own right hand Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try Who is our equal . . .


It is remarkable here how quickly epistemological absence turns into autogeny and autochthony and finally autonomous agency: since our true origin is unremembered, we must be self-begot, self-raised, self-taught, self-justified. The point is capped by a startling reversal: while the problem thus far has been Satan’s presumption of “all equality with God” (5.763), Satan turns the rhetorical and political tables in his intention to “try / who is our equal.” Thus autogeny recapitulates diabolic theology. This argument finds no purchase with Abdiel, “among the faithless, faithful only hee; / Among innumerable false, unmov’d, / Unshaken, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d / His loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal” (5.897–900). As Fish and others have observed, he and the other unfallen angels demonstrate a resolutely godly “faith-thinking,” a foundational grounding in the sovereign goodness of God that renders them highly resistant to the distractions of pride, plot, and politics that have so deeply altered Satan’s outlook.44 Upon his return to heaven, Abdiel receives warm divine praise for having fought “the better fight, who single hast maintain’d / Against revolted multitudes the Cause / Of Truth, in word mightier than they in Arms . . ./ for this was all thy care, / To stand approv’d in sight of God, though Worlds / Judg’d thee perverse” (6.30–2, 6.35–7). In such a state of voluntary allegiance, Abdiel is unconquerable. As he tells Satan in battle, “Thyself not free, but to thyself enthrall’d . . . / Reign thou in Hell thy Kingdom, let mee serve / In Heav’n God ever blest, and his Divine / Behests obey, worthiest to be obey’d” (6.181, 6.183–5).45 Satan, of course, sees this as servitude to tyranny, the “Minstrelsy of Heav’n” (6.168) which the “Vigor Divine” (6.158) of him and his associates must oppose in the name of liberty and real (i.e., self-motivated) action.46 “At first I thought that Liberty and Heav’n / To heav’nly Souls had all been one; but now / I see that most through sloth had rather serve” (6.164–6). It is an opposition he will return to again and again: energetic, freedomloving, heroic, revolutionary agential will rising up in defiance of lazy,

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX


mechanical, meaningless servitude to a being that claims an authority it does not deserve. And it is, at its root, predicated on accusation and blame. I don’t remember God creating me; since he claims to have, he is a liar and a fraud; the exaltation of the Son is an act of tyranny and nepotism; God’s primary quality is not goodness, but power; he values servitude, not liberty; he rewards his most obsequious lackeys, and suppresses independent vigor and merit out of fear. Only with these convictions in place can Satan perceive himself to be downtrodden and thus heroic, meritorious, free, libertarian, vigorous, and sacrificially value-driven in a noble “strife of glory” (6.290). In other words, only by pre-emptively blaming God can he validate his desire (the origin of which we cannot know, but the advent of which we can trace to the confrontation of choice) to defy him and do what he wants. It is just this dynamic in which Satan is engaged the next, and first, time we see him, in Book 1. In his first speech to Beelzebub, he affirms the nobility of the unsuccessful but “Glorious Enterprise” (1.89), the “sense of injur’d merit” (1.98) that legitimated it, the dubiousness of the battle and the shaking of God’s throne, and the heavenly tyranny of the Father–Son junta: “fardest from him is best / Whom reason hath equall’d, force hath made supreme / Above his equals” (1.247–9). His self-image depends on this, but so too does his political and rhetorical power to inspire his fallen followers. “For who can yet believe, though after loss, / That all these puissant Legions, whose exile / Hath emptied Heav’n, shall fail to re-ascend / Self-rais’d, and repossess thir native seat?” (1.631–4). In all this and much else the narrator repeatedly insists, and the poem repeatedly shows, that Satan is mistaken. As we will learn in later books, the battle was not very dubious, God’s throne was not shaken (see 6.834), the fallen angels will fail to re-ascend, hell really is hell no matter what one calls it, he is not equal to God, his rhetoric has “semblance of worth, not substance” (1.529), God is on the record as very much in favor of free choice, and so on and so on. Satan is comprehensively wrong about God (as presented in and by the poem) and consequently equally wrong about himself. Most importantly, for our purposes, he is utterly mistaken about the time and place of his actual freedom. “Here at least,” that is, in hell, and now, “we shall be free” (1.258–9), unlike before, and in heaven, when we were minstrels and slaves; now, at last, we can do whatever we want and find true fulfillment. Of course, we have already been assured by the narrator that nothing the fallen angels do, including the simple act of standing up, happens “by thir own recover’d strength, / [But] by the


Blame: Milton

sufferance of supernal Power” (1.240–1) – the point literally being made with a capital P – and that they have irrevocably renounced (as will, in the Augustinian view, Adam and Eve) the true liberty of choosing godliness over all alternatives. Their misreading of permitted action as autonomous agency, a capacity to independently will and do as they please, is also a circular mislocation of freedom in themselves and not God. So Satan is, unless one wants to read the poem as skeptically as a Shelley or an Empson, not only spectacularly ambitious but spectacularly wrong. In what is perhaps his boldest act of blame in Book 1, however, he may be half right. But he who reigns Monarch in heav’n, till then as one secure Sat on his Throne, upheld by old repute, Consent or custom, and his Regal State Put forth at full, but still his strength conceal’d, Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.


The charge of entrapment is astonishing: the Old Man deliberately hid his real power so as to goad us into rebellion and make us fall. In this strong a form the accusation is almost certainly unsupportable, but as I have suggested above, we might understand temptation as a necessary element in God’s moral structuring of the universe; if the alternatives to obedience are all innately unattractive, then not choosing them is something short of willed virtue. (A corollary of this might be that God concealed his strength not to entrap his creatures, but to avoid overwhelming their moral choice with sheer power rather than elective goodness.) What Satan offers here is a version of theodicy that is perverse but not unrecognizable: since evil (now) exists, and God is (it turns out) omnipotent, then He must not be omnibenevolent, and therefore is to blame for our transgression. This conveniently validates Satan’s prior accusations, but it entirely elides the evitability of his own offense and does so in ways that, while consonant in their conviction of divine tyranny, are at cross purposes with the logic of his earlier suspicions. While his implicit prewar blame worked to underwrite his own sense of merit and exercise of will, his postwar blame suggests that that will was not determinative or finally causative after all. This is rhetoric, of course, meant to mobilize support for yet another war, and it provides a common enemy for all of God’s vanquished to rally against; it addresses its hearers as objects of God’s unjust malice in order to transform them into maliciously militant subjects, and in so doing replicates the process we traced earlier in the prefallen Satan.

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX


The thing about Satan, though, the thing that, even more than his magnificent energy and swagger, makes him into such an astounding literary character, is that he knows this is not quite right. While he dazzles and amazes us in the first two books, his greatest agonies are not infernal or political but moral. His superlative first soliloquy in Book 4 begins with lines – which according to Edward Phillips predate the rest of the poem, and were originally intended as the opening of a tragedy – that appear to express straightforward envy and blame. He addresses the sun, from which he has just arrived, in terms that strongly suggest that he is also thinking about the Son. The sun is “with surpassing Glory crown’d,” and “look’st from thy sole Dominion like the God / Of this new World; at whose sight all the Stars / Hide their diminisht heads” (4.32–5). In Satan’s view, the sun-God’s glory does not radiate or infuse or inspire; it exceeds, overpowers, and diminishes others. He hates it because it reminds him “from what state / I fell, how glorious once above thy Sphere,” and this is curious: for all the implicit energy of unfair attenuation that has driven the speech thus far, his reading of his own suggestive parallel focuses instead on his own former similarity to the sun, not his current similarity to the lesser stars or his demotion to hell. In a strangely suppressive move, he extracts from a narrative of implied injustice and victimization a reminiscence of his own sun-surpassing but now-lost glory, and this turns out to be a pivot47 toward a remarkable self-analysis. He continues, Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down Warring in Heav’n against Heav’n’s matchless King: Ah wherefore! he deserv’d no such return From me, whom he created what I was In that bright eminence, and with his good Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.


These lines acknowledge the conscious falsity of Satan’s previous claims of autogeny and divine tyranny, and thus nullify the spurious bases of his claims to autonomy while also recognizing the accountable origins of his transgression in himself. “What could be less,” he asks himself, “than to afford him praise, / . . . and pay him thanks, / How due!” (4.46–8), but instead “I sdein’d subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest . . . / Forgetful what from him I still receiv’d” (4.50–1, 4.54). Things might appear to be heading in a promising direction here, but as we know they do not. Satan resumes his blaming of God when he wishes that God had created him “some inferior Angel” (4.58), one whose place was lowly enough that he would not be tempted to fly too close to the Son.


Blame: Milton

(He defers the obvious implication of this point – that God is blameworthy because generous – until later.) But this too will not work: Satan might have followed another overreacher, and in any case many very great angels stood “unshak’n, from within / Or from without, to all temptations arm’d,” so he is forced to an unavoidable conclusion. Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand? Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse, But Heav’n’s free Love dealt equally to all? Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate, To me alike, it deals eternal woe. Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will Chose freely what it now so justly rues.


This is a rather full endorsement of the principle of agential freedom articulated by God (3.98–102) and Raphael (5.529–38), and it radically constricts Satan’s options to the Faustian singularity of “curs’d be thou.” Indeed, it is worse, because Faustus, though in the end self-condemning, could also fairly accuse the external diabolic work of Mephistopheles, while as the original fallen angel Satan has no such external option. Sin’s eruption from his head (2.747–802) neatly allegorizes the internally generated quality of his transgression, and his narcissistically incestuous coupling with her (“thy perfect image”) reaffirms its essentially solipsistic and selfconsuming nature. The fallen Satan’s outrageous claim to be “self-begot” proves to be ironically and tragically correct. This recognized, and outward-directed blame taken off the table, what’s a fallen angel to do? The options appear to be few, poor, and claustrophobic: self-condemnation, regret, misery, fear. He considers repentance, twice, and rejects it the first time because it would be embarrassing to submit in front of the other devils (4.79–87); the second time, he appeals to self-knowledge to conclude that even if he could kneel to God for mercy, he could neither mean it nor stick to it (4.93–104), and things would get even worse. One might read this as another backhanded gesture to his created nature, and thus as another blaming of God, but Milton and Satan are up to something more interesting at this moment. Previously, Satan had blamed God and the Son in order to validate his envy, and to leverage himself into transgressively excessive agency and choice against them (they’re bad, and I’m awesome and freedom-loving, so I’ll cast off those constraints and do precisely what I want, regardless of what I’ve been told). Here, his moral retrospect and self-analysis lead him to exonerate God and lay all the blame on himself, and this, perversely enough, validates his continuing transgression and endless war

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX


on God (they’re good, and I turned on them, and this must indicate some essential and unchangeable truth about my nature, so I may as well embrace it and move forward). “All hope excluded thus,” he bids “with Hope farewell Fear, / Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my good” (4.105, 4.108–10). For Satan, the initiation of transgressive action depends on projecting blame onto God, but its continuation depends here on redirecting that blame inward where it can be contained and controlled. Doing so, he appears to think, will finally render him a self-enclosed, self-judging, selfauthorizing system by removing God and his opinions from the circuit entirely. And though he turns out to be wrong about the possibility of such total moral and political independence from God, this act of plenary self-blame is perhaps his truest and fullest moment of self-begetting. But Satan cannot quite carry this off, and what first staggers his autonomous resolve is not a confrontation with God, but his contemplation of Adam and Eve. It is apparently one thing to declare one’s independence and embrace of evil in theory, and quite another to actually wreak that evil on the innocent without explaining the justice of that act to oneself. After surveying Eden and its human acme, he recovers from speechlessness into a cascade of emotion. O Hell! What do mine eyes with grief behold, Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps, Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue With wonder, and could love, so lively shines In them Divine resemblance, and such grace The hand that form’d them on thir shape hath pour’d.


The grief with which he begins appears to immediately shape itself into a recognizably envious trajectory, as personal sorrow in seeing others in “our room of bliss,” but this is not the path Satan’s thoughts take here. Instead, they go immediately to admiration, wonder, prospective love, and then to pity, thus suggesting that his grief derives from the destruction in store for these innocent wonders. In unexpectedly finding himself emotionally accountable to these beings – his surprise at this is palpable in his initial interjection – Satan finds himself also obliged to justify what he is about to do, and since the qualms are his own the result is perhaps inevitably a return to rationalization and denial of responsibility. I am, he says, “no purpos’d foe / To you whom I could pity thus forlorn / Though I unpitied” (4.373–5), thus laying rhetorical claim to (a) a developed and sympathetic moral faculty, (b) an implicit warrant to be


Blame: Milton

pitied, and (c) a sense of betrayal at heaven’s pitiless regard of him and his plight. His speech tantalizingly suggests that, his prior embrace of evil notwithstanding, he still does possess the first to some degree, and the pitilessness of heaven toward him is incontrovertibly established in the poem, but what is the basis of his second claim? Though it seems clear enough to me that this is a being that desperately wants to be loved, he has not only defied God but more than once rejected the appeal to mercy, for reasons of both principle and practice, and it is therefore difficult to see what grounds he has for pity except his sheer need to once again regard himself as a victim. Doing so enables him, albeit with venomous humor, to see the pair and himself as allies, two generations of God’s victims, malice begetting malice upon virtuous innocents. And the obvious payoff of this is that it once again enables Satan to let himself off the hook. Accept your Maker’s work; he gave it me, Which I as freely give . . . Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge On you who wrong me not for him who wrong’d. And should I at your harmless innocence Melt, as I do, yet public reason just, Honor and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, By conquering this new World, compels me now To do what else though damn’d I should abhor.

(4.380–1, 4.386–92)

Empson, for one, sees this speech as sincere, even benevolent, and at any rate accurately diagnostic of God’s causative fault,48 but surely this is to mistake casuistry for truth. Satan here is providing himself with reassurances of his own moral integrity (quite contrary to his earlier determination to completely invert it into a diabolical countermorality) by once again tracing responsibility for evil to God, from whom, despite Satan’s earlier effort, there is no escaping; if that fundamental blame can be successfully asserted, then any number of other pragmatically plan-justifying reasons (public reason, honor, empire, revenge) will do. Indeed, by making God the originator of his own actions, Satan zeroes out his own agential accountability so thoroughly here that the narrator dismisses his entire argument as a self-exculpating appeal to “necessity, / The Tyrant’s plea” (4.393–4). Sorry, but it’s not my fault; had to be done; my issue’s not with you, nor yours with me; collateral damage and all that; if you don’t like it, take it up with God. The narrator’s denunciation of necessity recalls us to God’s disavowal of necessity and moral decree of freedom in Book 3, and this puts some important things in clearer perspective. Satan’s recasting of God as

Agency, Ontology, and Demonic Blame – V-VI, I, IV, IX


a force of causal necessity is a denial of his own freedom, not only in the present but also in the past, thus providing him with a kind of radical secondary agency without responsibility – a point subtly but startlingly emphasized by the moral judgment (reluctance, sympathy, abhorrence) he passes on his own “compelled” actions and their victims. In drawing such a distinction between conscience and accountability, Satan pragmatically revises his prior effort at self-enclosure by usefully reincorporating the divine; he can do whatever he wants, and blame it all on God.49 This makes him feel better, and enables him to resume forward movement. After eavesdropping on the happy couple’s discussion of the prohibition, he reflects on its meaning and potential. “Knowledge forbidd’n? / Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord / Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?” (4.515–7). I have argued elsewhere50 that Satan fundamentally misreads both the Tree itself and Adam and Eve’s correct understanding of it, but the point here is what he sees as its usefulness as a “fair foundation laid whereon to build / Thir ruin” (4.521–2). By interpreting the law in terms of ignorance rather than obedience, servitude rather than freedom, envy rather than love, and tyranny rather than sovereignty, he will “excite thir minds / With more desire to know, and to reject / Envious commands, invented with design / To keep them low whom Knowledge might exalt / Equal with Gods” (4.522–6). In other words, he will convince them to do as he did: to suspect God’s motives, deny his sovereignty, and consequently rise up against him in an act of oppositional self-assertion. “What likelier can ensue?” In the event, of course, that is very much what ensues. Satan returns to Paradise in Book 9 tormented by hate and loss, and admits that “only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts” (9.129–30). There is no question now of repentance or remorse, as he revels in his liberation from “servitude inglorious” (9.141), and only regrets the depths to which he has been made to sink. His object now as before is revenge, but this revenge is now both political and personal: God has subordinated, humiliated, defeated, and punished him, yes, but He has also replaced him, and put humans in a place of wonder, with angels at their service. It is not hard to feel that the second offense is worse than the first when Satan refers to Adam as “this new Favorite / Of Heav’n, this Man of Clay, Son of despite” (9.175–6). Revenge is a profoundly intimate form of reciprocity; without pretext it is merely offense, and that Satan sees his project as political and personal payback attests to just how thoroughly he blames God as the responsible cause of his own reprehensible actions. Even so armed, he staggers once more upon encountering Eve and her sublimely “graceful


Blame: Milton

Innocence” (9.459), forgetting his mission, “Stupidly good, of enmity disarm’d, / Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge” (9.465–6) – so much so that he has to forcibly recollect himself to them. Once he does so, however, his temptation of Eve is a masterful replication of his own recent history. He massages her high self-regard into ambition and aspiration, and causes her to question God’s truthfulness and goodness (“Not just, not God; not fear’d then, nor obey’d”) by encouraging her to think of the prohibition as evidence of God’s weakness and jealousy. Raphael had already told Adam, of course, that gradual ascent to heaven was available to him and Eve “if ye be found obedient, and retain / Unalterably firm his love entire / Whose progeny you are” (5.501–3) – if over time they demonstrated faithfulness and obedience to their creator. Satan offers the fruit as a shortcut around such protracted effort, an ontologically warranted apotheosis (“ye shall be as Gods” as you deserve) achieved by a single stroke of independent will. That Eve comes to find this attractive is a testimony to how effectively he has persuaded her of God’s unworthiness and tyranny. Once impatiently aspirational will gains the upper hand over gratitude and faithfulness, the game is all but lost. In Eve Satan has duplicated his own fall. Both are predicated on blame of God as repressive; both are acts of defiance authorized by that blame in the name of freedom and fulfillment; both, that is, are transgressive assertions of unwarranted agency that posit themselves against a heavenly tyranny that the poem explicitly denies. But the echo of that blame, and the appeal of its whispered note of revolt, has haunted the poem and its readers ever since.

X These discourses of blame – divine, human, diabolic – converge in Book 10, the job of which is to sort, correct, and finally order them under the aegis of divine justice. The narrator reminds us of this at the outset by reiterating the moral structure of the entire poem. Eve may have wished that “I perhaps am secret” (9.811), but what can scape the eye Of God All-seeing, or deceive his heart Omniscient, who in all things wise and just, Hinder’d not Satan to attempt the mind Of Man, with strength entire, and free will arm’d, Complete to have discover’d and repulst Whatever wiles of Foe or seeming Friend. For still they knew, and ought to have still remember’d,

X The high Injunction not to taste that Fruit, Whoever tempted; which they not obeying, Incurr’d, what could they less, the penalty; And manifold in sin, deserv’d to fall.



Here the normative voice of the poem reasserts God’s wisdom, justice, permissive will, and full (entire, complete) provision for his free creation. It is strikingly uninterested in laying blame on Satan, however – in a strange later passage (10.163–74), the serpent even initially seems to take the Fall for him – perhaps because he, since no longer a really free being, is not the moral center of the poem. He is already bearing the consequences of his actions, and will receive his full doom in due course; Adam and Eve’s have yet to be apportioned. Accordingly, the narrator’s analysis moves quickly and irresistibly toward blame and judgment. The past modal of “ought to have” (10.12) condenses the moral tragedy of needlessly lost paradise, both in its pastness and in the implied “could have” behind it; consequently, their choice to disobey, whatever the reason, justly incurred the penalty, and they fully “deserv’d to fall.” God’s first concern when addressing his understandably upset angels is to make clear who is not to blame. “Your sincerest care could not prevent” this tragedy, he assures them, and though I foresaw it, I would not prevent their free choice, “no Decree of mine / Concurring to necessitate his Fall, / Or touch with lightest moment of impulse / His free Will, to her own inclining left / In even scale” (10.37, 10.43–7). Justice requires the promised effect to this freely accountable cause, and it will be served, but as promised in Book 3, mercy first and last shall brightest shine: Adam and Eve will be judged by their intercessor, friend, mediator, ransom, and “Redeemer voluntary” (10.61). He doles out the punishments – pain, mortality, labor, sorrow – but also clothes them, inside and out, and promises that in time things will turn out all right. The dynamics of this encounter and its aftermath are quite interesting. When the Son asks Adam if he has eaten of the Tree, Adam takes fully eighteen lines to first evade and then finally square up to the question. First he laments aloud (i.e., to the Son) the dilemma he faces: should I “undergo / Myself the total crime” (10.126–7), or implicate Eve to spread the guilt around? I should conceal her offense, and “not expose [her] to blame,” but “strict necessity / Subdues me, and calamitous constraint,” in the form of guilt and punishment I couldn’t possibly bear alone. This is cowardice and nonsense, of course. He has already, disclaimers notwithstanding, sold Eve out in the process of saying he shouldn’t, and his note that the Son “wouldst easily detect what I conceal” is unintentionally


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comical, since he has already done much more revealing than concealing. If by “strict necessity” he means that he simply cannot bear the consequences alone, fair enough, but if he means he has no choice that’s probably not true. Once he has passively accused Eve and exposed her to blame, Adam attempts to spread some (again with embarrassing indirection) God’s way. “This Woman whom thou mad’st to be my help” was so perfect that I “could suspect no ill” in her, and indeed “her doing seem’d to justify the deed; / Shee gave me of the Tree” (10.137–43). This claim that Eve’s perfection neutralized Adam’s rational and moral judgment is, in its attempt to blame his transgression on God’s very goodness and generosity, reminiscent of Satan’s earlier complaint that God had made him too great, thus provoking the very sin of idolatry that was to be avoided at all costs. The Son’s response, while admittedly quite sexist, is not primarily concerned with misogyny but with Adam’s abdication of responsibility, and it is quite a stunning rebuke. “Was shee thy God, that her thou didst obey / Before his voice, or was shee made thy guide, / Superior, or but equal” (10,145–7)? The Son’s censure is at its core a firm refusal to let Adam offload his blame onto his wife (though she does of course share in it) or her creator, or (which is the same thing) to allow him to implicitly deny his freedom or completeness to have obeyed. At the end of his speech, Adam finally admits, and one can easily imagine the half-line being mumbled, that “I did eat.” Eve, refreshingly, gets to that phrase in a single line, but she nonetheless manages to cram exterior blame into the five words that precede it: “The Serpent me beguil’d and I did eat” (10.162). Five words of cause, three of effect: certainly less cravenly exculpatory than Adam’s efforts, and in the conjunctive “and” the possibility of a simple yoking of two facts, but in any case a dispersion of guilt for a choice she was equipped to make aright no matter what. Perhaps because of her ready acknowledgement, “Confessing soon, yet not before her judge / Bold or loquacious” (10.160–1), she is spared the sort of tongue-lashing to which her husband had been subjected. (Once judgment is delivered, mercy shown, and the Son returned to report and intercede, Sin and Death get busy, and an exultant Satan arrives back at Hell to report his tremendous achievement and bask in applause and adoration. Oh, the things I’ve done, he tells his fellow fallen, and with, get this, an apple! But instead of approbation, he hears “from innumerable tongues / A dismal universal hiss, the sound / Of public scorn” (10.507–9) from the mouths of newly serpentine devils. “Thus was th’applause they meant, / Turn’d to exploding hiss, triumph to shame / Cast on themselves



from thir own mouths” (10.545–7). Praise infernally intended, and expected, recoils upon itself as blame; so ends Satan’s role in Paradise Lost.) Adam, observing the disordering of nature as he ponders his crime and punishment, seeks to disburden himself in an extraordinary soliloquy (10.720–844) that wavers between responsibility and blame. One of its most remarkable features is its greater fear of blame than of death. “If here would end / The misery,” he moans, “I deserv’d it, and would beare / My own deservings” (10.725–7), and this is an encouraging sign of the accountability that has been so lacking in his previous pronouncements. But it is actually a complaint, that death comes later rather than immediately, thus enabling an infinite future of “propagated curse” that Adam regards with horror. what can I increase Or multiply, but curses on my head? Who of all Ages to succeed, but feeling The evil on him brought by me, will curse My Head; Ill fare our Ancestor impure, For this we may thank Adam; but his thanks Shall be the execration; so besides My own that bide upon me, all from mee Shall with a fierce reflux on mee redound, On mee as on thir natural centre light Heavy, though in thir place.


Here is what appears to be the primary reason for Adam’s powerful death wish: life will bring with it an infinite accumulation of curses, a universal hiss with no terminus, and this is surely worse than death. Having perhaps absorbed the thrust of the Son’s scolding, he acknowledges that he is the “natural centre” for these curses to land on, but quickly recoils from such an enormous burden of guilt. I did not ask for any of this, he says, not creation, not paradise, not responsibility, nor was my permission sought before I was subjected to them; therefore it is only fair to let me “render back / All I receiv’d,” right now. Adam’s complaint of nonconsultation weirdly inverts Satan’s autogenetic claim of noncreatedness, as each appeals to a pre-existence (or lack thereof) which establishes certain rights, but the point of each case is similar: to deny or critique God’s rights of creation. Adam does not deny his createdness, but he suggests that without his impossibly pre-existent consent, there is something lopsidedly unjust about it. He then further ups the ante by disputing his sufficiency to have stood, “unable to perform / Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold / The good I sought not” (10.750–2). Clearly we are recalled here to


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Adam’s unfallen hymns of praise in Books 4, 5, 8, and 9, and to the “one easy prohibition” (4.433) and “just” command (5.552) now denounced as “terms too hard” for which he was ill-equipped by a God whose justice is “inexplicable” (10.754). Upon further reflection, however, Adam changes his mind again: since “God made thee of choice,” and “thy reward was of his grace, / Thy punishment then justly is at his Will. / Be it so, for I submit, his doom is fair” (10.766–70). Some terrifying questions remain about the nature of death, and the propagation of “Mind and Will deprav’d” (10.825) to all posterity, but in the end he arrives, despairingly but courageously, at the conclusion that God is not to blame. Him after all Disputes Forc’t I absolve: all my evasions vain And reasonings, though through Mazes, lead me still But to my own conviction: first and last On mee, mee only, as the source and spring Of all corruption, all the blame lights due.


Once again we are encouraged, and once again we are to be disappointed, for it turns out that Adam’s blame-shifting (and its corollary denials of responsibility and agency) is not quite over. When Eve meekly approaches, he unleashes a torrent of invective upon “that bad Woman” as “false / And hateful . . . / longing to be seen . . . / fair defect / Of Nature . . . / But for thee / I had persisted happy” (10.837, 10.868–9, 10.877, 10.891–2, 10.873–4). Why did God have to create women? If he had stuck with masculine creatures, as in heaven, “this mischief had not then befall’n” (10.895). Eve’s reaction, like her confession, makes Adam’s look bad in comparison. Her earlier anger is now sorrow and contrition, “Tears that ceas’d not flowing” (10.910); her previous desire for independence is now ardent longing for union; and instead of casting aspersions upon God or Adam, she takes radical responsibility, and her only external blame is reserved for the serpent. When she points out that she and Adam have both sinned, her aim is not to spread the blame around but to concentrate it on herself. both have sinn’d, but thou Against God only, I against God and thee, And to the place of judgment shall return, There with my cries importune Heaven, that all The sentence from thy head remov’d may light On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe, Mee mee only just object of his ire.




Adam had in his cogitations made some progress, but Eve here commits the first postlapsarian act of total responsibility and moral heroism. She knows that he shares substantially in guilt, but determines – she is not offering or asking, but announcing – that she will voluntarily beg to bear the consequences alone, as “sole cause . . . / Mee mee only.” Even the serpent is set aside in Eve’s efforts to suffer her husband’s punishment. This sacrificial possibility has been raised and entertained more than once by Adam (see 10.125–35, 10.834–7), and he will do so again shortly (10.952–7), but in each case only for the purpose of declaring it unthinkable and impossible. Eve has no such cavils or hesitations; she is, though she does not know this, volunteering for a version of the love-induced excess responsibility that had so glorified the Son in heaven. Her total and sacrificial penitence moves Adam to lament his own failure and to wish, rhetorically at least, that “on my head all might be visited, / Thy frailty and infirmer Sex forgiv’n, / To me committed and by me expos’d” (10.955–7). “Let us no more contend,” he advises, “nor blame / Each other, blam’d enough elsewhere, but strive / In offices of Love, how we may light’n / Each other’s burden in our share of woe” (10.958–61). In the wake of Eve’s exemplary self-blame, recrimination gives way to mutuality of love and support. In the mutual discussion of strategy that follows, Eve’s focus is on containment. To this end, she proposes two desperate forms of agency, both stoically extinctive. The first is the willed inaction of celibate nonprocreation: “in thy power / It lies, yet ere Conception to prevent / The Race unblest, to being yet unbegot” (10.986–8), thus limiting Death’s repast to us alone, and preventing a posterity of misery and blame. Should abstinence prove too difficult for Adam, “Let us seek Death, or he not found, supply / With our own hands his Office on ourselves” (10.1001–2), making our own quietus in noble suicide, “destruction with destruction to destroy” (10.1006). Adam finds Eve’s proposals both sublime and worrisome, and suggests taking a longer view that more properly understands their situation. Surely, he argues, God “hath wiselier arm’d his vengeful ire than so / To be forestall’d” (10.1023–4), and would punish any presumptuous effort to take charge of the situation ourselves; either form of self-extinction “savors only / Rancor and pride, impatience and despite, / Reluctance against God and his just yoke / Laid on our Necks” (10.1043–6). Hughes usefully recalls us to the Latin sense of reluctance as struggle, not just foot-dragging, though that sense is even stronger than he observes: the oppositionality of reluctance is built into the word itself (from reluctari, re-, against + luctari, to struggle), and further reinforced by the grammatically needed but logically superfluous “against” that connects their relucting to God.


Blame: Milton

In Adam’s view, that is, Eve’s suggestions would repeat the fundamental violations of the Fall itself, and make things even worse. Equally important, they overlook the grace and mercy of the Son’s judgment, and the promise of future triumph that would be implicitly refused by the selfassertion of self-erasure. God still loves and cares for us, he tells her, in sustenance as he did in creation, even though we have made things harder and worse by attempting to seize control of that relationship on our own terms. If we go to God with confession, contrition, “sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek” (10.1092, 10.1104), “undoubtedly he will relent” (10.1093), for even when he was most justly angry, “what else but favor, grace, and mercy shone?” That the pair ends the tenth book by implementing Adam’s plan verbatim suggests that they have retained the power to translate will into action, and that that will, when properly accountable and self-subordinating, might be reconcilable to God after all. The opening lines of Book 11 tell us, however, that what has looked like moral maturation in Adam and Eve’s relations, to each other and to God, has not in fact been primarily their own doing. Things have changed so much in the previous book because “from the Mercy-seat above / Prevenient Grace descending had remov’d / The stony from their hearts, and made new flesh / Regenerate grow instead” (11.2–5). Only with the softening power of grace had they even become capable of proper contrition and repentance. The narrator tells us that their sighs and prayers were “inspir’d” by the spirit of prayer, and God reports to the angels that man “sorrows now, repents, and prays contrite, / My motions in him” (11.90–1), but these inspiring motions do not appear to devalue human action at all, and indeed the Son, interceding on behalf of the beleaguered human race, argues quite astonishingly that their fallen sorrow is more praiseworthy than unfallen obedience; he describes their penitence as Fruits of more pleasing savor from thy seed Sown with contrition in his heart, than those Which his own hand manuring all the Trees Of Paradise could have produc’t, ere fall’n From innocence.


How can this possibly be? The Son back-engineers a metaphor from prelapsarian agriculture (or more accurately, the minor maintenance of natural fecundity) to freight it with moral and spiritual meaning. Adam’s prior efforts could only result in literal, naturally inevitable fruit, but the allegorical extension of this implies that prelapsarian obedience had its limits as well: while that obedience may not have been quite as “easy” as



Adam had made it out to be, and obviously was not inevitable, it was also not structurally complex: one could either obey God and forbear the fruit, or disobey and eat. The Fall complicated that structure immeasurably, with corrupted beings forever after attempting to navigate a dizzying array of pitfalls. Fish might be right that for Milton all important choices continue to be at bottom one choice (that is, whether to act in understood fidelity to God or not), but the job of recognizing the true shape of those epiphenomena became exponentially more difficult. This is why God sends Michael to Eden with the twin directives of eviction and instruction: reading a world and a history whose fallenness is a macrocosmic unfolding of the readers’ own will require some careful exegetical training. Perhaps this is why the Son suggests that the finding of fidelity in fallenness is “more pleasing” to God, even though it is only made possible by prevenient grace. Though “thy seed” at first appears to refer to Adam as the created progeny of God, it quickly becomes apparent that Adam, and specifically his heart, is that in which a seed was planted. The sinful and resistant human heart cannot be compared to the automatic fertility of paradise; the seed, then, must be God’s grace, the fruit the faithful contrition into which it grows, and the cultivation of that seed (those inspirings and motions) into that fruit (of faithful response to God) the work of humankind. Here as in creation, Milton’s God provides what is necessary (capacity, guidance, grace) and leaves it to humans to see it through. Or not. But if the correct making of a straightforward choice was accounted glorious faithfulness in the unfallen, then maybe the correct making of a bewilderingly distorted choice, by a disabled agent with a disheartening inclination to failure, is to be accounted even more. As God had explained in Book 3, only a few would be inescapably elected to salvation; the rest would be called to it, and would be responsible to exercise their rational liberty to embrace it. The decree of salvation here is the innovation (according to Raphael [5.535–40], none of the angels have such a guarantee); the constant otherwise is the requisite accountability of moral beings. When Michael talks politics with Adam in Book 12 (12.79–104), he explains that true liberty always coexists with “right reason” and its cognate virtue. Where reason and virtue are exercised, there liberty will be; where they are neglected, tyranny will reign in an outward reflection of an inward liberty already renounced, and this is “no wrong, / But Justice” (12.98–9). He proposes this as explanation for the future rise of monarchy, but on both the individual and collective levels, this is also the story of the Fall, which in its abandonment of rational virtue ushered in the tyranny of sin


Blame: Milton

and death. Michael is clear on this relation when he responds to Adam’s criticism of Nimrod’s “authority usurp’t” (12.66) by reminding him that he himself is to blame for it: “since thy original lapse, true Liberty / Is lost” (12.83–4). This loss limits our capacity for reason and virtue, but does not eradicate it – Milton’s politics would make no sense if it did – and humanity’s dependence on God is no new development, though it is intensified. For most of us, Milton suggests, the nurturing of the seed of grace into the pleasing fruit of faithfulness is a project for which we will be answerable, both as nations and as individual souls. In Eden and ever after, Milton demonstrates, blame (like its inverse praise) is the very index of agency. When improperly cast or rebuffed it is a primary form of fecklessness and sin, and a denial of freedom and accountability. But its proper use and acceptance, whether deserved or not, is the confirmation and substance of both moral agency and grace itself, a recognition and redemption of humans’ capacities and right relationship with God. And indeed, many of the theological and literary texts treated in Theology and Agency weave blame into their various inquiries. To ask (like Milton’s God and many other characters and texts) “whose fault?” is implicitly to ask “who could, and should, have done otherwise?” – thus predicating praise and blame on agential capacity in ways that are not confined to earth. Agency, that is, entails risk, and all these writers struggle to understand both the proper allocation of that risk and the implications of doing so rightly or wrongly. In their explorations of sin and grace, will and action, divine and human, praise and blame, they probe the deepest contours and fractures of what it is to be human.


While I have striven to be fair and evenhanded in the treatment of my subject, this study is inevitably partial in every other sense of the word. It has taken a small selection of literary texts from a particular place in a limited segment of history. Those texts, moreover, are centrally canonical ones that have been copiously analyzed, interpreted, and taught because their depth and richness encourage and reward such close attention; Theology and Agency can only be a small contribution to that history. It is a modest step in what I think is a productive and important direction, and not the first: it is built on the prior thinking of many who appear in this study, and the critical work of Debora Shuger, Richard Strier, and Brian Cummings has been particularly exemplary to me in recognizing and engaging these issues. In other words, my effort here to recover and reconstruct an important intellectual framework for our reading of these texts is itself inevitably framed and limited. That said, this frame is highly extensible. I have begun with Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Ford, Herbert, Donne, and Milton because I had for years, and without fully realizing it, been teaching them in interconnected ways that responded to their shared and deep interests in the problematics of agency. But these authors simply represent my starting point, not any sort of end to this line of inquiry: these issues could be profitably pursued in a virtually limitless range of authors, texts, periods, and literatures, and I hope that other scholars will do so. As my transhistorical scope, references, and epigraphs have indicated, the dilemmas of agency are still very much with us in manifold forms, and even in our popular culture. The altcountry band Wilco complains that “No love’s as random / As God’s love / I can’t stand it . . . / No love’s as random / As my love / I can’t stand it.” David Davalos’ 2010 play Wittenberg imagines Faustus singing “Che sera, sera / The things that will be, shall be / Your fate’s either bound or free / Che sera, sera.” Radiohead’s song “Just” meditates on consequence and blame, and contends that “You do it to yourself, you do, / And that’s what 223



really hurts / You do it to yourself, just you, / You and no-one else.” Mumford and Sons’ “Roll Away Your Stone” announces a renunciation of desire in response to grace, but concludes resistantly that “you, you’ve gone too far this time / You have neither reason nor rhyme / With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.” A 2014 Shovels and Rope song wrestles with the tensions of sin, merit, and agency: “I’m gonna be a good man, gonna do the best that I can / Though I’m a shell of the man that I once was / And if I find forgiveness in the eyes of God / It’ll be hard won, I assure you.” And in a song released only weeks before this writing, the Wild Reeds suggest that “It’s not what you’ve got that’ll get you to God / No, it’s not what you thought that’ll get you to God.” Such examples (and they could be multiplied indefinitely) remind us that though the terms in which the agency problem is posed and probed have changed somewhat over time, there is little reason to think that, even after twenty-odd centuries of working on it, we have resolved or transcended its basic structure. For this reason, even though the present study has focused on the specifically religious version of the issue – and I am, obviously, convinced that this is essential for understanding Renaissance literature – the questions it asks are readily adaptable to other forms: social, political, biological, physical, economic, and so forth, in both literature and the world at large. As I suggested in my introduction, the dynamics of agency press upon us from many directions. My aim in this book has not been to be definitive, or to exhaust or resolve or finally answer the profound questions these amazing texts raise. It has simply been to recognize those questions as important, to return them to (or extend their role in) our discourse about the texts, to question what I think are some broad critical errors, and to show some ways in which thinking seriously about these issues might enrich and deepen our understanding of what’s going on in the literature. If this book manages to highlight something consequential about the intellectual contexts of early modern literature, sparks fresh thinking and productive conversation about these texts and others, and perhaps even helps us to think a little more deeply about our own selves and contexts, it will have accomplished much of what I’d hoped for.


Introduction 1. Unless otherwise noted, all Shakespeare quotations will be taken from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn. 2. Measure for Measure is also instructive in this regard: Claudio wants mercy, of course, and will eventually get it, but he understands that it cannot be demanded, and that its absence would not be unjust (1.2.100–3) since he has in fact violated the law. Isabella, conversely, begins her initiative by saying, “I’ll see what I can do” (1.4.83) to get him off the hook, but ends up caught in her own net. One sibling exemplifies submission to law, and is saved; the other attempts to subvert law through individual initiative, and fails. 3. Alcoholics Anonymous and religion have some parallel insights into the problems of solipsism and action. The program’s 12 steps begin with three of humility: acknowledging one’s own powerlessness, recognizing some higher power, and deciding to “let go and let God” “relieve me of the bondage of self.” Only then can the subject begin to take effective action. 4. Fred Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, maintained that his preferred version of the prayer began with “God, give us grace to accept with serenity.” 5. It is also not remotely new: John Sellars (Stoicism, 17) writes that according to the late-Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the key to happiness is “continually to analyse our experience of the world in terms of this division between what is ‘up to us’ (eph’ hemin) and ‘not up to us’ (ouk eph’ hemin)” – a notion and a phrase that can be further traced back to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics III). 6. Austin Johnson, in conversation, sometime in 2011. 7. Old Masters, 10; see also ch. 1. The following quote is from p. 36. 8. William Hasker (God, Time, and Knowledge, 1) contends that “the fullest and richest development” of the problematics of divine power and human freedom “has occurred in the Christian theological tradition, beginning at least as early as Origen and reaching a climax in the debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Hasker cites Anthony Kenny’s assertion that “nineteenth- and 225




11. 12.


14. 15.

Notes to Pages 8–12 twentieth-century treatments of these matters have added very little to the work of earlier philosophers and theologians” (The God of the Philosophers, 8). Somewhat schizophrenically, this general view tends both to regard this phenomenon as historically genealogizable, and to treat it as a transhistorical sine qua non of fully human existence, thus conveniently hierarchizing modern values over past ones. Others who have written well on this (and in so doing made major contributions to the critical “turn to religion” described by Marotti and Jackson) include Richard Strier, Brian Cummings, Sarah Beckwith, and David Aers, who puts the point bluntly: “One simply cannot write the history of the subject in a culture where Christian beliefs and practices are pervasive without taking Christianity extremely seriously” (“Whisper,” 196). The Individual and the Cosmos, 76. The Individual and Cosmos, 98. Similar biases, implicit and explicit, are widespread; Poppi, for example, describes Protestant theology as “fideistic fatalism” that is “destructive of man’s reality” and “regard[s] man as nothing more than the instrument of a divine sovereignty which despotically imposes its eternal decrees even to the extent of willing human sinfulness” (“Fate,” 666). The great disappointment of Sinfield’s work in this area is that its sometimesbrilliant insightfulness is often obscured by its polemical biases, which manifest themselves in frequent strawmanning, reduction, and unsupported assertion. His view of Protestantism and literature as “ultimately irreconcilable” (Literature in Protestant England, 48) – a proposition that I consider absurd – necessitates a choice, and Sinfield ultimately attends to Christianity for the purpose of condemning it. Much of this also applies to the work of John Stachniewski, who treats many of the same texts and subjects, and at times even more polemically than Sinfield, and to James Simpson’s Burning to Read, which is stimulating, provocative, and profoundly, fundamentally biased against Protestantism. On this see also Dihle, Theory of Will, ch. 4, and esp. 71–5. I owe this reference, oddly enough, to the brutally and lyrically profane HBO series Deadwood (season 1, esp. 3), which approaches these questions from a decidedly different angle. Other verses in this chapter amplify the ambiguity: “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD” (1); “commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established” (3); “he that handleth a matter wisely shall find good: and whoso trusteth in the LORD, happy is he” (20); “the lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD” (33). See also Proverbs 20:24: “Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?” For purposes of simplicity, clarity, accessibility, and consistency, these and all subsequent Biblical references will be given from the Authorized (King James) Version unless otherwise necessary.

Notes to Pages 12–14


16. To be more precise, theologians have generally explained this as a manifestation of Christ’s dual nature and will: while his divine nature did not shrink from the plan, his human nature understandably blanched at the suffering and alienation to come before promptly resubmitting itself to the divine. See Wilken, Spirit, ch. 5, for a good account of the pivotal seventh-century contribution of Maximus the Confessor to the history of Christianity’s understanding of this passage, and of Christ himself. 17. Michael Frede (Free Will, 2) says flatly that “if we look at Greek literature from Homer onwards, down to long after Aristotle, we do not find any trace of a reference to, let alone a mention of, a free will.” See also Dihle, ch. 2, and especially his discussion of Homeric menos on pp. 34–5 (Theory of Will). Taylor (Sources, 118) contends that “it is not that the hero remains great despite the divine help. It is an inseparable part of his greatness that he is such a locus of divine action.” 18. This account is essentially that of Knox, Oedipus at Thebes. 19. Knox makes this point in his introduction to the 1982 translation of the play by his student Robert Fagles (Sophocles, Three Theban Plays). 20. Quotes taken from David Grene’s 1954 translation (Sophocles, Sophocles I). 21. Oedipus at Thebes, 181. In his 1982 essay, Knox puts it thus: “The catastrophe of the tragic hero thus becomes the catastrophe of fifth-century man; all his furious energy and intellectual daring drive him on to this terrible discovery of his fundamental ignorance – he is not the measure of all things but the thing measured and found wanting . . .. [H]e recognizes also that the prophecies given to his father and to him by Apollo were true prophecies, that they had been fulfilled long ago, that every step taken to evade them, from the exposure of the child to the decision never to go back to Corinth, was part of the pattern of their fulfillment” (Sophocles, Three Theban Plays, 126). 22. When they did, Knox notes (Three Theban Plays, 127), they started “from this same mythical base, the oracle given to Laius.” 23. Hellenistic Philosophers, 107. 24. Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 book The Swerve is about the Renaissance rediscovery and implications of this idea. 25. This principle would subsequently reappear in figures as diverse as the fourteenth-century theologian Thomas Bradwardine, the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin, the nineteenth-century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, and the twenty-first century neuroscientist/atheist Sam Harris. 26. Determinism and Freedom, 45. 27. On divination 1.125–6; Long and Sedley, eds., Hellenistic Philosophers, 337. Calcidius much later summed up the Stoic synthesis of physics and theology quite nicely: “providence will be god’s will, and furthermore his will is the series of causes. In virtue of being his will it is providence. In virtue of also being the series of causes it gets the additional name ‘fate’” (Long and Sedley, 331).

228 28. 29. 30. 31. 32.

33. 34. 35.

36. 37.


39. 40. 41. 42.


Notes to Pages 14–18 Long and Sedley, 386. Long and Sedley, 339. Long and Sedley, 389. Calvin, Institutes, 1.17.4. As Long and Sedley sum it up, the immutability of events provides “precisely the proper context for autonomous moral choice” (342); “on the Stoic view determinism and moral responsibility are not merely compatible, they actually presuppose each other . . . answerability for our actions in no way requires an open future and might even be seriously jeopardized by one” (392, 394). Long and Sedley, 388, 389. “Stoic Determinism,” 192. Dorothea Frede (“Stoic Determinism,” 184) identifies this as a key difference between the Stoics and their immediate predecessors: “For the Stoics there is one all-embracing world order and universal coordination. In Aristotle, all causes, including the telos, are confined to their ‘local’ context.” Theory of Will, 144. He earlier describes this as a “clear-cut notion of will which was always implied in the Biblical image of god, man, and the universe, though utterly alien to Greek cosmology and ethics” (19). Free Will, 89. A related and long-standing question on which scholars disagree, but which I will not get involved in here, is the degree to which St. Paul himself was influenced by Stoic ideas; on this see Engberg-Pedersen, Paul; Rasimus et al., Stoicism; and deSilva, St. Paul. Free Will. As part of his critique of what he takes to be Dihle’s untenable model of pure volition, Frede transitions from Origen to Augustine by arguing (151–2) that Plotinus avoided the “terrible mistake” of thinking that “we are free to make absolute and unconditioned choices which have no further explanation . . . To think that we can just will something by a sheer act of volition is rather close to deluding oneself into thinking that one is God.” Hobbes, for one, saw Stoic and Christian necessity as indistinguishable (Of Liberty and Necessity, §18). Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 6. John R. Searle (Freedom and Neurobiology, 37–8) fretted in 2007 that “the persistence of the traditional free will problem in philosophy seems to me something of a scandal. After all these centuries of writing about free will, it does not seem to me that we have made very much progress . . . Why is it that we have made so little advance over our philosophical ancestors?” “To explain how free actions can escape the clutches of physical causes and laws of nature, libertarians have posited transempirical power centers, nonmaterial egos, noumenal selves outside of space and time, unmoved movers, uncaused causes, and other unusual forms of agency or causation – thereby inviting charges of obscurity or mystery against their view” (Kane 2005, 33).

Notes to Pages 18–23


44. In “The Dilemma of Determinism,” James makes the case for antideterminist libertarianism, but concedes that it is a matter of subjective preference (to live as if we exist in a world of choice and possibility rather than a world without them) rather than “coercive demonstration” (James, The Will to Believe, 149, 146). 45. For a good introduction to these debates from a significant (but evenhanded) participant in them, see Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Several good edited collections of important essays on the matter are available, among them Kane’s Free Will and Oxford Handbook of Free Will; Watson, Free Will; Pereboom, Free Will; Ekstrom, Agency and Responsibility; Hyman and Steward, Agency and Action; and Timothy O’Connor’s admirably concise overview essay in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Russell and Deery’s Philosophy of Free Will is an excellent and wide-ranging gathering of the current state of the art – if also somewhat ahistorical (Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Luther, and, so far as I can tell, all ancient Greeks save Aristotle are absent from the index) and triumphalist in its conviction that now, at long last, real progress is being made. It is also religion-averse in ways that other collections are not. 46. As Epictetus reports (Discourses 2.19; Long and Sedley, 230–1), Diodorus Cronos extrapolated the logic of causation to equate actuality with necessity, and saw unrealized “possibility” as an illusion. Only that which happens could ever have happened; what appear to us as alternatives and choices are in effect misunderstandings of inevitable certainties. Chrysippus would seek to moderate this. 47. Hyman and Steward, Agency and Action, v. 48. Long and Sedley, 388; the bracketed alternative translations are from Pereboom, 13. 49. Pereboom, 79. 50. Hume explicitly compares this to Enlightenment physics, in which laws of nature were inferred from empirical observation of persistent correlative phenomena. 51. Quoted from Pereboom, 94. 52. “Where would be the foundation of morals,” asks Hume, “if particular characters had no certain or determinate power to produce particular sentiments, and if these sentiments had no constant operation on action? . . . Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil” (Quoted from Pereboom, 94, 100). 53. “Alternate Possibilities,” 1. All Frankfurt citations will be from his 1998 collection, The Importance of What We Care About.


Notes to Pages 24–31

54. Frankfurt emphasizes (Importance, 7n4) that those forces (that is, Black) could be a range of things: other people, a machine, natural laws. For the purposes of this book, I would add God, a fairly obvious extension that he does not explicitly make – which is curious, considering that his account of these powers and effects seem very like the powers ascribed to God in the JudeoChristian tradition. 55. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” 12. 56. In this he is incisive and correct, but not original; as we will see in Chapter 1, Augustine (following Paul) entirely recognized this crucial difference, as would his heirs. As Shuger puts it (“Gums,” 14), “In Augustinian Christianity, the domain of unfreedom is within; people cannot choose their thoughts, emotions, and dreams” (13). 57. I have borrowed the name and the tobacco example from Eleonore Stump, though my development and use of them is my own. 58. Both Sidney and Frankfurt, I think, are heirs of Plato’s principle of selfmastery (Republic, IV), which requires “a distinction between higher and lower parts of the soul. To be master of oneself is to have the higher part of the soul rule over the lower, which means reason over the desires (‘to logistikon’ over ‘to epithumetikon’)” (Taylor, Sources, 115). 59. Four-part Hamlet citations reflect the Norton/Oxford Shakespeare’s editorial decision to base their text on F, and interpolate Q2 passages not in F. 60. While analyses of desire, will, action, character, and ethics are of course heavily scattered throughout the critical literature, there is a surprising scarcity of studies that focus intensively, primarily, and at length on the theological context and problematics of that constellation of phenomena. Some that do engage substantially with them are Strier’s Love Known (1983), Sinfield’s Literature in Protestant England (1983), Shuger’s Habits of Thought (1990), Stachniewski’s The Persecutory Imagination (1991), and Cummings’ Literary Culture (2007). 61. It can happen, of course – see Timpe, Free Will, 9 – and Luther himself maintained that humans have considerable freedom in temporal matters. But William Perkins, for example, did not hesitate to say that “there is not the least thing in nature, but it cometh to pass by the decree and will of God” (Golden Chain, ch. 54). 62. Sources, 204. 63. Leviathan I.13.13. Immediately prior to this, Hobbes describes the state of nature as “this war of every man against every man,” and “that misery which accompanies the liberty of particular men.” 64. Importance, ix.

Notes to Pages 33–7


1 A History of Christian Agency 1. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical citations will be taken from the Authorized (King James) Version. 2. Though modern scholars disagree on Paul’s actual authorship of some of the New Testament epistles, I will for simplicity’s sake use his name as the author of the Pauline corpus and tradition as it has been historically and canonically understood. 3. Romans 3:20 is a classic articulation of this point: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” 4. Paul’s critique of superaddition may recall us to Derrida’s analysis of supplementarity: “But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void . . . As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness” (Of Grammatology, 145). 5. This too is a matter of some current debate, between scholarly exponents of the traditional “Lutheran” view that I describe here, and the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul, which argues that his critique was narrowly aimed at Jewish religio-cultural practices only, not at human works in general. I find the first considerably more persuasive, and it is in any case the one most relevant to this book, but it is worth noting that even modern readings of Paul are conflicted over the role and value of human works. 6. Here I Stand, 259. 7. The view that all the saving work is done by one party – whether God or the individual human – is called monergism; synergism like that of James holds that both parties work together in essentially contributory ways. 8. Pelikan, Christian Tradition 1 (CT1), 280–1. 9. Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and especially Origen are influential early-patristic examples of this. See Weaver, ch. 3. 10. The relation between Augustine’s early anti-Manichean writings (in which he powerfully insists on free will, and in the opinion of many modern scholars created the version of it that we recognize [the first book of De libero arbitrio has been plausibly described as philosophically libertarian]) and his later antiPelagian writings (in which he just as powerfully insists on the unaided human will’s inefficacy to pursue the highest goods) is a matter of great scholarly interest, with many seeing evolution or tension or outright contradiction between them. But others find them compatible, and it is worth noting that Augustine himself did not see these parts of his oeuvre as being at odds with each other: in his late-career Retractationes, wherein he reviewed his earlier works and corrected them when he felt necessary, he


11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21.

22. 23. 24.

Notes to Pages 38–42 admits no contradiction between his earlier and later views. For an overview of this problem, see Stump, “Augustine on Free Will,” in Cambridge Companion to Augustine, and (on the question of Augustine’s compatibilism and/or incompatibilism) Timpe, Free Will, 123n47. For a brilliant discussion of Augustine’s world-changing development of inwardness and will, see Taylor, Sources of the Self, ch. 7. Confessions X.xxix (40), p. 202. Augustine’s account is in De Dono Perseverantiae, 20. De natura et gratia, 2,2, pp. 225–6; 8, p. 228 in Augustine, Answer to the Pelagians I (AP1) (trans. Teske). De natura, 6,6, p. 227 in AP1. De natura, 8, p. 228; 30, 34, p. 242 in AP1. De natura, 19 21, p. 234 in AP1. De natura, 34,39, pp. 244–5 in AP1. De natura, 37,44, pp. 246–7 in AP1. De natura, 51,59, pp. 254–5; 69,83, pp. 269–70 in AP1. De natura, 1,1, p. 225 in AP1. Augustine would later explain (Retractationes, II.42) that in De natura et gratia “I did not defend grace in opposition to nature, but the grace by which nature is set free and ruled.” This is Ferguson’s view (Pelagius, 173–4), though others, including Augustine, do not see in Pelagius a strong belief in divine assistance as bringing about action and being. Augustine quotes Pelagius’ lost De libero arbitrio in De gratia Christi, 4,5, p. 404 in AP1: “We distinguish these three elements and arrange them in a definite order. In first place, we put the ability; in the second, willing; in the third, being. Ability is found in nature; willing in choice; being in action. The first element, namely, ability, is properly due to God who conferred it upon his creature. The two other elements, namely, willing and being, should be attributed to the human person, because they proceed from choice as their source.” Augustine also used the words possibilitas, voluntas, and actio (capacity, volition, and action) in his account of the Pelagian view (see De gratia Christi, 3,3–5,6, pp. 404–6 in AP1). De natura et gratia, 50,58–51,59, pp. 254–5 in AP1. Confessions, VIII, vii (19)–ix (21), pp. 147–8. See also Aers, “Whisper.” Albrecht Dihle asserts (Theory of Will, ch. 6) that “it is generally accepted in the study of the history of philosophy that the notion of will, as it is used as a tool of analysis and description in many philosophical doctrines from the early Scholastics to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, was invented by St. Augustine,” and argues that Augustine’s intense self-analysis psychologized, anthropologized, and voluntarized the will in ways that mark a decisive turn from classical precedents. Michael Frede (Free Will) contests this, and argues instead that Augustine was embracing ideas first developed by the later Stoics.

Notes to Pages 42–7


25. “Gums,” 10. Shuger’s essay is a brilliant analysis of what she calls “Christianity’s abiding fascination with wet dreams” as liminal test cases that “disclose rather than subvert the fundamental structure of moral and religious experience” (10). It is not coincidence that the phrases which so aggravated Pelagius – “Grant what you command, and command what you will” – are part of a meditation on continence, lust, and nocturnal emissions. There is, she argues, a “synecdochal relation between wet dreams and Augustinian subjectivity: between the filthiness that escapes in a dream, the thoughts that crowd unbidden into consciousness, and the feelings that surge and ebb of their own accord. Inwardness here, as elsewhere, presents itself as that which escapes agency” (13) and thus requires grace. 26. This is certainly a close relative of Sidney’s “erected wit” and “infected will,” the latter of which he explicitly associates with sin, and the gap between which can be partially effaced by the moving power of good poetry. 27. Sources, 138–9. For more on the problem of akrasia, see Hoffman, ed., Weakness of Will – as well as Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and particularly the characters of Redcrosse, Guyon, and Acrasia. 28. De natura et gratia, 2,2, p. 226 in AP1, quoting Galatians 2:21. 29. De natura, 57,67, p. 260 in AP1. 30. See, for example, Rees, Pelagius, 135. 31. St. Augustine of Hippo, 361. 32. See Civitate Dei, XIV. 33. Pelagius, 17. 34. Some theologians have seen Augustine’s predestinarian theology as essentially the same as Calvin’s, while others argue that Augustine’s version is a somewhat milder single predestination in which, while the elect are chosen in a specific and positive sense, the damned are simply not elected and so passively remain under condemnation. For a brief overview, and an argument for the latter reading, see Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo, 386–93. 35. De gratia et libero arbitrio, 2,2, pp. 71–2; 2,4, p. 74 in Augustine, Answer to the Pelagians IV (AP4), quoting Matt. 16:27. 36. De gratia, 6,13, p. 79 in AP4. 37. Weaver, Divine Grace, 19. Weaver’s book provides an excellent overview of the controversy, to which my own account here is extensively indebted. 38. As Augustine puts it in Epistle 215 (to Valentinus), “good persons will also receive their reward in accordance with the merits of their good will; they have attained this good will itself, however, through the grace of God.” 39. I. Cor. 4:7. In De predestinatione sanctorum, 3,7, Augustine recounts how this verse, via Cyprian, convinced him of his former error in thinking that faith originates in us. Rather, he argues, not only good works, but also the belief and will that drive them, are gifts of God.


Notes to Pages 47–52

40. On all this, see Weaver, ch. 3. 41. Can. 6, for example, condemns the belief that “mercy is divinely conferred upon us when, without God’s grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, keep watch, endeavor, request, seek, knock, [and] does not confess that it is through the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we believe, will, or are able to do all these things.” 42. Denzinger, *370–397, pp. 134–40. 43. Divine Grace, 232–4. 44. Divine Grace, ix. 45. Augustine would disagree with this view of course, and would likely describe his own as realist, hopeful, just, and suffused with the beauty (and mystery) of a divine power that saves and ennobles its beloved-though-undeserving objects. 46. The following medieval discussion will be necessarily partial and focused. For a broader overview, see the brief essays by Korolec and Donagan in Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. 47. Summa Theologica I (ST1), Q.1, Art. 8; all quotes will be taken from the English Dominican Fathers translation. I have also consulted Fairweather’s translation, which is less literal but often clearer. 48. ST1, Q.23, Arts. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 4. 49. ST1, Q.23, Arts. 6, 8. 50. ST12ae, Q.82, Art. 1. 51. ST12ae, Q.85, Art. 5. 52. ST12ae, Q.109, throughout. 53. ST12ae, Q.85, Art. 2. 54. ST12ae, Q.85, Art. 4. 55. ST12ae, Q.109, Art. 2. 56. ST12ae, Q.109, Art. 5. 57. ST12ae, Q.112, Art. 1 argues that “it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.” 58. ST12ae, Q.110, Art. 3; Q.109, Art. 8. 59. ST12ae, Q.113, Arts. 6–8, corrected with Fairweather. 60. See Q.113, Art. 3, where Aquinas insists that God works with human free will rather than against it, and Q.109, Art. 6, where he attempts to reconcile apparently conflicting biblical testimony on who initiates the reconciliation of God and humans: Zech 1:3 (in which God says “Turn ye unto me, and I will turn unto you”), Jer. 31:18 (“Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God”), and Lam. 5:21 (“Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned”). Aquinas concludes that “man’s turning to God is by free-will; and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God. But free-will can only be turned to God, when God turns it.” Similar problematics of turning will reappear in Chapter 4 of this book.

Notes to Pages 52–6


61. ST12ae, Q.111, Art. 2. 62. ST12ae, Q.114, Art. 3. Art. 1 similarly argues that while all merit is made possible by God, “the rational creature moves itself to act by its free-will, hence its action has the character of merit.” 63. These distinctions bear some obvious resemblances to the evolving categories of justification and sanctification, but in subsequent Protestant use these are typically sequential: cooperative sanctification cannot begin until after monergistic justification has been accomplished by God. 64. Recall my previous description of the Pelagian view of humans as “rational, responsible, only moderately compromised free agents” – but also, of course, Aquinas’ explicit rejection of Pelagianism. 65. ST12ae, Q.111, Art. 2. 66. Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians. For a more recent development of this line of argument (that does not rely on Leff), see Gillespie, Theological Origins, ch. 1. 67. Leff, 10, 12. Leff’s account is highly indebted to Gilson’s, as mine is to his. 68. Leff, 127, 201, 203; chs. 8, 9, and 11 are generally relevant to the present discussion. See also McGrade, “Natural Law,” 3.349; Korolec, “Free Will,” 638; Aers, Salvation and Sin, 35. In another version of this paradox, Pelikan contends (CT4, 35) that Ockham and his followers “managed to appear simultaneously deterministic and Pelagian” in their emphasis on both God’s predestinating omnipotence and human freedom. See McCord Adams, McGrade, Wood, Aers (ch. 2), and Gillespie for a range of views on this. 69. Later in the century, and likely influenced by Bradwardine, Wycliffe would also (and more influentially) argue that “God himself was the first cause and the only cause of predestination to salvation as well as of damnation, with man playing a purely ‘passive’ part in both” (Pelikan, CT4, 32; see also Leff, 261–2). 70. Salvation and Sin, 38, 38, 81. 71. Theological Origins, 34. 72. Leff, like Gillespie, sees their conflict as a harbinger of the divergence between Renaissance humanism and the Reformation (Bradwardine and the Pelagians, 263–4). 73. This latter principle is famously dramatized in the late-fifteenth-century play Everyman, in which the title character must choose to undertake the last rites of anointing, confession, penance, and viaticum, and is accompanied to Judgment solely by Good Works. 74. See Hiroshi Obayashi’s entry on “Afterlife: Christian Concepts” in Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion. 75. Rupp and Watson, eds., Luther and Erasmus, 37; subsequent citations of Erasmus and Luther will be given parenthetically from this very good edition.


Notes to Pages 56–69

76. Augustine had taken a similar position in his later tracts on predestination: it’s true, but you needn’t harp on it. 77. “I confess that it is right that the sole authority of Holy Scripture should outweigh all the votes of all mortal men. But the authority of the Scripture is not here in dispute. The same Scriptures are acknowledged and venerated by either side. Our battle is about the meaning of Scripture” (Rupp and Watson, 43). 78. See Thomas More’s response to such Lutheran and Tyndalean notions in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (I.28, and esp. 167–9). 79. Literary Culture, 182. 80. Cummings calls De libero arbitrio “a passionate defence of a God of reason and justice . . . For Erasmus, the concepts of the justice of God and human responsibility are inseparable” (Literary Culture, 180–1). 81. Skinner, Foundations, II.6. 82. Sources, 216. 83. The biblical text itself (though not the “if” being discussed here) was somewhat at issue here; see Erasmus’ textual comment on this passage (54), and the translators’ note on 32. 84. See esp. 54–64. 85. Literary Culture, 161, 164, 166. Cummings’ entire chapter on this exchange – which he reads as an argument over “hermeneutic theory, the modes of linguistic analysis, and the practice of literary criticism” (150) – is essential reading. 86. It is also, he adds in this passage, deeply self-serving and not really concerned with equity per se; if it were, Luther’s critics would concern themselves with the true injustice of his system, and that is grace. If everyone has earned judgment and punishment, there is nothing unfair about all or any of them receiving it; it is grace that defuses rational equity in the glorious injustice of divine love. 87. Tyndale makes a classic and often-misunderstood articulation of this in his Obedience of a Christian Man. 88. Pelikan, CT4, 144. 89. 1.15.4, p. 1.208 in the Allen edition of the 1559 Institutes, and henceforth cited parenthetically. 90. Calvin approvingly cites Augustine reading Paul: “God does not permit, but rules” (3.23.1, Beveridge trans.). 91. Some needed special pleading has preceded this in 1.15.8, where Calvin stresses Adam’s choice and free will before the fall to which they led. It is, however, unclear just how this causative exemption works, given the sweeping declarations of determinism that follow in 1.16, and indeed, while Calvin insists that Adam and not God is to blame, it is not hard to sense his discomfort with the awkward fit between determinism and fallibility. See also 3.23, and Chapter 5.

Notes to Pages 69–76


92. “Man is not possessed of free will for good works, unless he be assisted by grace . . . Man may be said to possess free will in this sense, not that he has an equally free election of good and evil, but because he does evil voluntarily, and not by constraint” (2.2.6–7). 93. See also 1.15.2, 2.3.3, 2.8.40, and 3.7.6. Calvin suggests, though, that even in terrestrial matters, good human choice and action “depends more on the influence of God, than on the liberty of your own choice” (2.4.6–8). 94. See Pelikan, CT4, 33–5. 95. Its sterner supralapsarian form, as subsequently developed by Beza and Perkins, goes even further and contends that these decrees precede the Fall in ways that arguably threaten to make God the author of sin and death. 96. See Chapter 4 for more on the problematics of assurance. 97. Pelikan notes (CT4, 260) that even Contarini and other somewhatsympathetic Catholics found it wrong “to set Augustine in opposition to the other church fathers this way, for such a doctrine of predestination was fatalism.” 98. Denzinger, 374–88. 99. “Within the boundaries of what was ‘Catholic’ [i.e., an agreement that both grace and freely chosen works were necessary for salvation], there was a plurality of choices” in Tridentine Catholicism as to just how those two elements actually worked together (Pelikan, CT4, 288). 100. See Joseph Pohle’s dense article on Molinism (The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911, Dec. 11, 2013, www for a thorough discussion. Molinism has had a recent resurgence among modern philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. 101. I am taking up this thread here for narrative purposes, but Arminius was not the origin of Protestant discomfort with predestination, and D. Andrew Penny has amply described the earlier struggles between predestinarians and freewillers in mid-Tudor England. 102. A trilingual edition can be found Schaff, ed., Creeds, 3.545–9 ( /ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.xv.html). 103. What follows is my condensed paraphrase; the full original text of the canons can be found in Schaff, 3.550–97 ( 104. See Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists. Milton, for example, came to hold some Arminian beliefs in common with William Laud, whose politics and ecclesiology he otherwise detested; conversely, he was politically allied for much of the 1640s with the strongly Calvinist Presbyterians. The 1646 Westminster Confession (Schaff, 3.600–73, west, reasserted Calvinist principles against decades of English Arminianism; see esp. chs. 3, 9–11, 16, 18.


Notes to Pages 76–83

105. /articles-of-religion.aspx. 106. For an engaging, illuminating, and mostly balanced account of these tensions in the subsequent history of American Christianity, see Thuesen, Predestination. 107. On Grace and Free Will, 1.2; quoted in Pelikan, CT4, 144. 108. It has not, of course, escaped other determinist dilemmas. 109. Alan Sinfield observes that “historically, each of these two theologies has fed on the inadequacy of the other” (Faultlines, 236). 110. Pelikan, for example, mentions (CT4, 2) but does not actually cite the “old saw” that the Church of England was and is “Pelagian in its pulpit, but Augustinian in its prayer book.”

2 Will: Marlowe 1. All quotations from Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta are taken from Bevington and Rasmussen’s 1998 Oxford edition (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays), and parenthetically cited. 2. Greenblatt gets Marlowe importantly half-right in describing his protagonists as “virtually autochthonous . . . continu[ing] to exist only by virtue of constantly renewed acts of will” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 213). I am suggesting, though, that this is not the free-floating “absolute play” that this slippery essay suggests, but rather a dynamic contextualized by the transcendent even in its most apparently secular and skeptical instances. 3. Alison Shell (“Tragedy and Religion,” 45) puts the point nicely: “the notion of Marlowe as a pioneer of secular drama, and . . . metaphysical audacities, is most helpful where one acknowledges, as Marlowe himself did, how secularism needs religion as its scaffold.” 4. All citations are taken from Bevington and Rasmussen’s 1993 Revels edition (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus: A- and B- Texts) of the play(s). 5. Adrian Streete (“Calvinist,” 430), citing critics from Campbell to Stachniewski, asserted in 2000 that “scholars have long recognized Marlowe’s concern with Calvinist ideology in the play.” 6. Faultlines, 237. He has previously suggested that the play “was written to embarrass protestant doctrine” (235) by exposing its contradictions and terrors, thus providing a “marvelous interpretive challenge to Christian humanists who feel they should discover Marlowe to be endorsing a nice, decent kind of god” (230). 7. Persecutory, 292, and n1. Stachniewski’s vigorous, creative, and utterly hostile reading of the play is secondary to, and deeply driven by, his own view of the

Notes to Pages 84–5



10. 11.




“narrow joyless culture [of] Calvinism” as a “bizarre” “psycho-theological prison” (330, 14, 331). Woods,“Marlow and Religion,” 228 in Bartels and Smith, Christopher Marlowe in Context, citing Dollimore and Sinfield (n12). I will argue that the correct answer to her question is “neither,” and that the question is a false choice, more reflective of critical discourse than of the play itself. Sinfield, to his credit, does both; he observes that in the B-text “both the Reformation god and a more genial alternative [i.e., examples of characters being nice to each other] are presented more vividly” (Faultlines, 235), and allows that the play is “entirely ambiguous” (234). Functionally, he uses B to locate that “radically and provocatively indeterminate” ambiguity in an ideological “faultline” between free-will and determinist readings – but my argument is that such a faultline can only be manufactured by determinedly imposing the latter on the play. Stachniewski, in an even more stridently antiProtestant reading, uses A but does not seem to regard B as inconsonant with it (Persecutory, 293 n2). “Textual,” 11. My own view of the textual question is that it is hopelessly stalemated, and that people are thus free to choose A or B as they please – Michael Warren has persuasively argued that most arguments for the objective superiority of one text over the other are essentially justifications of subjective preference – and that that is perhaps precisely what they have always done; I prefer A because it is more focused and concentrated, contains less shenanigans, and in its greater openness leaves us more free to address its central questions ourselves. For much more on the two texts, see Bevington and Rasmussen’s discussion (62–77), and Rasmussen’s Textual Companion. Even Bevington and Rasmussen, in a less strident way, and in a generally judicious and excellent introduction to the play (which endorses Douglas Cole’s emphasis on “the personal responsibility of free human choice” [7]), venture that “certainly Doctor Faustus faces a Protestant dilemma. The stunning mood of alienation and loss that we experience in the play owes much of its force to a new sense of the isolated human soul in Luther’s and Calvin’s views of salvation” (12). This is followed by a compact survey of the theologians’ soteriological views that does little to demonstrate their presence in, or relevance to, the play. In an established play-text, of course, the first part of this is nearly always true: characters cannot escape the scripts in which they have their existence. But in the absence of clear evidence, why blame God or Calvin for it? Perhaps the fact that one of the rare exceptions to this – Woodes’ A Case of Conscience, which exists in contradictory comic and tragic versions – is often compared to



15. 16.

17. 18. 19.

20. 21. 22. 23.


Notes to Pages 85–91 Marlowe’s play has caused some unrecognized confusion about the fact that plays generally will end how they end. Some very recent criticism has begun to remember this. K. Poole correctly recognizes that “the play lies at a cultural and theological nexus” (“Dr. Faustus and Reformation Theology,” 97) centering on agency questions, and Engle (“Marlowe and the Self”) identifies serious problems with reading the play in Calvinist terms – but both also get caught up in the assumptions of their predecessors and overestimate the actual role of Calvinism in the play. “John Calvin and Doctor Faustus,” 12. Robert Hunter makes pretty much the same move a few years later. His stimulating argument – that this play provokes theological reflection, is susceptible to a range of theological readings, and “is careful not to pronounce” on whether things unfold as they do because of Faustus’ free will or God’s reprobating decree – is undermined by his contradictory imposition of Calvinism on the play (though to his credit, he does make some attempt to argue for its presence). Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 113. Doctrine of Election, 216 n8. Stephen Orgel, for all his great expertise and insight, is bafflingly flippant when he says that “Faustus is throughout the play convinced that he won’t be allowed to repent, but this is because he simply hasn’t read far enough; he hasn’t read as far as we have” (Authentic, 224.). This is to assert dramatic irony at the expense of basic plausibility or sense. Radical Tragedy, 112, 114; Dramatist, 228 quoted in Bluestone, “Libido Speculandi,” 63. As Waswo puts it (“Damnation,” 82), Faustus “is now himself creating the ‘doctrine’ of determinism that he erroneously reads out of his scriptural texts.” Two further examples are Keefer’s gloss on lines 46–7 in Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, and Engle’s endorsement (“Marlowe and the Self,” 204) of David Riggs’ distorted account of this passage. Engle does eventually acknowledge that “the play’s basic plot is, after all, inconsistent with Calvinist double predestination” (207), and develops a substantially more nuanced view of Faustus as a “Calvinist atheist attempting to be a resolute epicurean in an emerging Arminian dispensation” (209), and the play as a “richly imagined spiritual universe that rejects predestined reprobation and damnation” (210). Engle’s prior Riggsian errors notwithstanding, this is one of the best recent critical summations of the play. Even Faustus’ “hardened heart” does not resolve this. Understandably, since God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (in Exodus, which is actually inconsistent on who caused the hardening; see 4:21, 7:3, 7:22, 8:15, 8:32, 9:12, 9:34) was the prime example of reprobation in Protestant soteriological

Notes to Pages 91–9



27. 28. 29. 30. 31.

32. 33. 34.

35. 36. 37.


discourse, some critics see this as clear evidence of Protestant determinism and Faustus’ hopeless doom, but Protestants didn’t completely own this reading, and Erasmus had denied its necessity and attributed the hardening to Pharaoh’s own choice (Rupp and Watson, 65). This if/can formulation has been subjected to some hair-splitting analyses (see, for example, Bevington and Rasmussen, 29), and this is not entirely unfair, but it is hairsplitting. Taking “can” as indicative of impossibility is utterly inconsistent with all the Good Angel’s exhortations in A, all of which assume and imply possibility. Of more interest, I think, is the Evil Angel’s “if,” which predicates a consequence on a clearly possible course of action. This is more or less the same argument Langland’s Lucifer makes in Passus 18 of Piers Plowman, where its specific function is to exhibit the devil’s failure to understand the advent of redemptive grace and how radically Christ’s sacrifice has changed everything. Both Lucifers, and Faustus, work by a relentlessly graceless and tragic soteriology of right and desert. Shakespeare, 48. Christopher Marlowe, 108. “Doctor Faustus: From Chapbook to Tragedy,” 9. As I will argue below, however, this emphatically does not imply that he had always been doomed regardless of anything he might have done. If the God of this play were the peevish, small-minded bully that Sinfield and others regard him as, surely these gestures would be enough to placate him; the fact that they clearly aren’t suggests that morally important things might be at stake after all. See Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will,” for the seminal exposition of this. To translate this to the traditional model of penance and reconciliation, Faustus does not engage the initial steps of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, and thus does not experience absolution or reconciliation. L.T. Fitz, in the delightfully titled “‘More Than Thou Hast Wit to Ask’: Marlowe’s Faustus as Numskull,” proclaims Faustus not an intellectual hero but a “sixteenth-century numskull” (219), because “in spite of the fact that Mephistopheles clearly does not perform all prescribed articles, Faustus never reminds him of these conditions, or seeks to nullify the contract” (216) – thus failing in terms of law, folk trickery, and grace (see, again, Piers Plowman 18, where these converge triumphantly). “Dr. Faustus and Reformation Theology,” 104. The closest he comes is in his plea to “You stars that reigned at my nativity, / Whose influence has allotted death and hell” (89–90) – but this is astrological fatalism, not theology. As the B-text Mephistopheles reminds him (2.3.4), “’Twas thine own seeking, Faustus. Thank thyself.”


Notes to Pages 101–9

38. “Textual Indeterminacy,” 9. 39. “Textual Indeterminacy,” 10–11. 40. Compare this to its Augustinian inverse, in which true freedom is found in submitting to the will and grace of God. 41. “Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,” 713, in Pincombe and Shrank, eds., Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature. 42. McAlindon (“Doctor Faustus,” 216–17) makes much the same point in a wonderfully effective critique of Stachniewski and the entire idea that predestinarian Calvinism is central to the play’s logic. His short essay is essential reading on this subject, and so sensible that I am at a loss to account for his seemingly contradictory concession that “one must also acknowledge that Faustus’s repeated failures to win God’s mercy do communicate the sense of a relentless and cruel fate” (219). As McAlindon himself so persuasively demonstrates, this is a result of choice, not fate, and he has not failed but declined to repent and seek for grace.

3 Action: Revenge Tragedy 1. Tanya Pollard’s overview essay on revenge tragedy in the 2010 Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, for example, discusses politics, law, justice, emotions, Seneca, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Italian tragedy, foreignness, gender, violence, tragicomedy, and metatheatricality, but religion is not even mentioned. 2. See Woodbridge, English Revenge Drama, ch. 2, for a fuller discussion and critique of this position that particularly singles out Prosser, the Halletts, and Bowers. See also Ayres’ sensible 1972 survey of midcentury critical arguments, and early modern pro-revenge narratives (“Degrees of Heresy”). 3. English Revenge Drama, 34. 4. Explicit examples of the former include S. F. Johnson and Broude, though the view is often tacitly assumed; Rist, Shell, and (in a somewhat different way) Greenblatt are instances of the latter. 5. See Woodbridge, English Revenge Drama, 35n30. 6. The critical tendency to pervasively assume the Reformation as loss, and see theatre as its symbolic (and crypto-Catholic) compensatory mechanism, is particularly tiresome. For a civilly withering critique of some of its historiographical analogues, see Shuger, “Reformation of Penance.” 7. English Revenge Drama, 37. I would add that to some degree Erasmus and the Catholic tradition and non-radical Arminian Protestants did so too, in rejecting the more totalizing forms of determinism and arguing that humans’ eternal fate must in some way involve and reflect their own choice and action.

Notes to Pages 109–15


8. So, in his way, does Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven character Will Munny, who, after being told by Gene Hackman’s corrupt lawman Little Bill that “I don’t deserve [to be killed],” says bitterly, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it” – and then shoots him dead to avenge the murder of his friend. The fuller version of this interesting exchange goes like this: Little Bill Daggett: I don’t deserve this . . . to die like this. I was building a house. Will Munny: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. [aims gun] Little Bill Daggett: I’ll see you in hell, William Munny. Will Munny: Yeah. [fires]. 9. In a very judicious theological treatment of Hamlet, Rick Mallette avers that while the play repeatedly invokes the problematics and vocabulary of soteriological controversy, it “employs the dynamics of that controversy to focus on temporal freedom” (“From Gyves to Graces,” 353). I do not agree with his thorough filtering and allegorization of the play’s theological content, but his essay is essential reading. 10. There is a relevant link here to early modern political theology, where these problems assume political form; in a worldview that saw everything, including social and political arrangements, as providentially dispensed by God, issues of agency also define the nature and limits of individual social and political action. Calvin, for instance, contended (Institutes, 4.20) that only past change can be safely read as providential; what is now is the unabrogated ordination of God. The end result is a political theology that retrospectively embraces past revolution, but effectively forbids its present form almost entirely, and thus leaves little or no room for individual agency in an inalterably providential present. 11. All Kyd citations will be taken from Mulryne’s New Mermaids edition. 12. In his essay on fortune, Bacon famously writes that “chiefly, the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands. Faber quisque fortunæ suæ [Every one is the architect of his own fortune], saith the poet . . . All wise men, to decline the envy of their own virtues, use to ascribe them to Providence and Fortune; for so they may the better assume them: and, besides, it is greatness in a man to be the care of the higher powers” ( 13. Paul sometimes speaks of the imputed righteousness of grace as “putting on Christ” like a garment; see Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27. 14. “Theories of Revenge,” 285. 15. “Theories of Revenge,” 290. These distinctions were important in the sixteenth-century development of resistance theory; see Skinner, Foundations, chs. 7–9. 16. Calvin (Institutes 1.5.7) asserts that it should not “perplex or eclipse [God’s] perpetual rule of righteousness, that he frequently permits the wicked and



18. 19. 20. 21.



Notes to Pages 115–17 guilty for a time to exult in impunity . . . there will be a judgment hereafter, till which the punishment is deferred.” Tyndale argued on a similar basis that “whosoever avengeth himself . . . taketh the office of God upon him and robbeth God of his most high honour in that he will not patiently abide his judgment” (Obedience, 181). Lorna Hutson (Invention, 284) similarly argues that Hieronimo “cannot imagine justice without his collaboration, justice as taking place after death”—though she is discussing a relatively late point in the play, whereas I will argue below that this trait is visible much earlier. He reminds us of this constant resolution in 3.13.86–9. “Divine Justice,” 228–9. She also articulates a notion of afterlife much more Christian than the rest of the play generally allows in 3.8. The continuing prevalence of these assumptions can be seen, for example, in Michael Neill’s introduction to a 2014 edition of the play, where he describes the King as “coldly indifferent” to Hieronimo’s plight (Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, xxxi) even though the play itself does not offer much evidence for this, and the King is in fact quite solicitous and concerned: “What accident hath happed Hieronimo? / . . . Believe me, nephew, we are sorry for’t / . . . let him have his due / . . . We shall increase his melancholy [if we force him out of office]. / Tis best that we see further in it first” (3.12.83, 90, 93, 99–100). Bowers (Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 69) avers that “Hieronimo first endeavors to secure his legal rights before taking the law into his own hands,” but this is only technically true, in the sense that he formally undertakes these endeavors before taking action. I’ve argued that the impulse, the will, to take the law into his own hands precedes his legal efforts, which themselves might well be seen as belated, feeble, and too easily thwarted. Hutson’s account of Hieronimo’s forensic procedure (Invention, 277–87) is insightful and smart – she recognizes that Hieronimo “implicitly assumes . . . heavenly agency” and “has evidence and the ear of the king” (279, 284) – but even though she implicitly identifies the reasons why Hieronimo’s appeal to the King should not have failed, she does not sufficiently interrogate that failure. McAdam argues that “the Reformation emphasis on an unmediated relationship with God could blur the distinction between the self and its divine other, in such a way that the true meaning of ‘Vengeance is mine’ becomes psychologically problematic, as it does for Hieronimo, who comes to see himself as divinely assisted” (“Spanish Tragedy,” 35). McAdam reads Protestantism primarily in terms of radical individual authorization, though as I have demonstrated in previous chapters, it could also work in precisely the opposite direction to decouple and polarize divine and individual agency.

Notes to Pages 119–23

24. 25.

26. 27.

28. 29. 30.


Interestingly, in the 1592 edition of the play, the second line continues with a first-personal pronoun that is always editorially emended to “Ay”: “I, heauen will be reuenged of euery ill.” Though “I, heauen” is grammatically hard to bear out except as, possibly, a clumsy sort of apposition, and is in all likelihood a case of simple phonetic equivalence, it does gesture nicely at the dynamics under discussion here: “I, heaven” might be read as a submissive affirmation, or as a coup. Revenge Tragedy, 179. Empson takes a novel tack in his two essays on the play, beginning with these legitimate critical concerns but addressing them with what I think can be fairly called wild surmise: postulations of censorship, overdetermined readings, and even the hypothesizing (and writing!) of a “missing scene” which conveniently makes his theory work (Essays, 58–9) but for which there is no clear evidence in the surviving text. Even Empson’s highly sympathetic editor acknowledges that readers may find his “creative interpolation” an “utterly illegitimate critical trick” (4). Sinfield’s claim (Literature, 115) that Revenge’s control is “just like” that of Calvin’s God is provocative but rather facile and I think incorrect. Joel Altman, in a thoughtful and influential consideration of the play, offers a dramaturgical and epistemological solution to the “apparent discrepancy between the determinism assumed initially and the autonomy suggested by the extended dianoia of the major characters” which is a useful model for my thinking about the play’s ethical and agential dynamics. He suggests that The Spanish Tragedy “invites us to respond in several different ways: to enjoy the visceral pleasures of a well-deserved blood revenge, to ponder more carefully the problematic situation of the man who would be just, and to reflect upon the simplistic judgment of the frame as an aspect of his problem. The first two affective imperatives are familiar enough from our experience with the digressive plays of Kyd’s predecessors. But the last is original. Evidently sporting Kyd, assiduously studying English Seneca by candlelight, discovered what earlier playwrights had failed to see: that the contrasting perspectives of frame and action proper might be made to reflect ironically upon one another” (Tudor Play of Mind, 269, 270–1). Dramatic Identities, 218, 222–3, 226. Dramatic Identities, 195. Donna Hamilton is quite right to describe Revenge at this moment as speaking of himself “as a quality in men, not himself as a creature in control of men,” but takes this too far when she flatly asserts that “Revenge does not direct or control anything” (“A Speaking Picture,” 206, 204). J. R. Mulryne, meanwhile, analogously overstates the opposite case: “We know that the play’s outcome will be disastrous for anyone who opposes Andrea’s


31. 32.

33. 34. 35.

36. 37. 38. 39.

Notes to Pages 124–8 revenge . . . all action takes place within a determined framework to which we, but not the actors, hold the key” (Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, xxiii). Summa Theologica 1 (ST1), Q.23, Arts. 6, 8. Michael Neill (Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (2014), xxxvi) usefully observes that “by pitting the nightmare of no end against the formal closure of the catastrophe, The Spanish Tragedy deliberately unsettles the consolations of tragic design, and the effect is to question the framework of cosmic and human order as Kyd’s contemporaries were taught to understand it.” I agree with this, except insofar as Neill’s concerns are largely sublunary and sociopolitical; my contention here is that the transcendent order, problematic as it may be, is what finally contains and orders earthly chaos. Hamlet, 103–17. This reading of Hamlet’s delay as springing from, essentially, an unsatisfiable perfectionism goes back at least to Hazlitt’s 1817 Characters from Shakespear’s Plays, though Curran makes no mention of this. Phebe Jensen’s phrasing is apt: “the play does not open its mysteries in response to [Curran’s] application of puzzling, schematic characterizations of Protestantism and Catholicism” to a play that famously refuses confessional clarity (review, Shakespeare Quarterly 58/4 [2007]: 542–4). It is, for example, hard to take seriously Curran’s cartoonish characterization of Protestantism as “unmitigated determinism” in which “human actions, thoughts, and feelings mean nothing” (16) and are “worthless” and “about nothing” (218). Such caricatures evacuate divine love from soteriology, mistake the sad remainder for life, and erase human significance in ways that I think would alarm even Calvin. Hamlet, xxviii–xix. All citations will be taken from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn., which is based on the First Folio, with Second Quarto-only lines interpolated and noted in a four-part citation. Alan Sinfield suggests that “The issue which oppresses Hamlet is not how or whether to be revenged, but how to do anything purposeful at all” (“Hamlet’s Special Providence,” 90). I often begin my teaching of Hamlet by asking my students if these characters got what they deserved, and the answer my students give is always overwhelmingly “yes.” But when I ask them to support this with specific, decisive textual evidence that they are truly the treacherous “adders fanged” that Hamlet thinks they are, they run into difficulties because there really isn’t any; they can easily be read as loyal friends who are honestly (if naively) trying to help their friend and serve their king. This of course makes Hamlet look bad, which has its own value in unsettling uncritical readings, but more importantly it provides a powerful lesson in how deeply our readings of this play are affected by the mediation of Hamlet’s own consciousness – which is

Notes to Pages 129–37





44. 45. 46.

47. 48.


not always reliable or right, factually or morally. In this respect, Claudius and Polonius and Laertes are exactly right: Hamlet is not to be trusted. This is of course exactly the point that Tom Stoppard would exploit several centuries later in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) – a play that, for all its derivativeness of Beckett, is really quite brilliant at tapping into this deep Shakespearean vein. 3.1.118–23. I don’t wish to press this conventional schematization too far, as Catholicism obviously takes both original and committed sins very seriously, but it also offers ways to mitigate them by what you do, which Protestantism (and certainly Calvinism) generally refuses. 3.1.129, 2.2.298. It is worth noting that in this famous latter passage, which extols the noble, admirable, and godlike nature of man, Hamlet describes humanity as “in action how like an angel” – like, that is, the congenitally deferential order of beings whose raison d’etre is entirely to do God’s bidding, and whose desires and wills and actions are so shaped by their subordination to God that to depart from that results in reversal of essence and banishment from heaven. Milton, of course, understands this absolutely. Curran’s reading of these lines is perhaps necessary to sustain the central terms of his argument, but very strained. “The joke here is on Polonius, who truly deserves whipping, and the notion of his ability to determine the players’ ‘desert’ is laughable . . . They are far more meritorious than Polonius could possibly understand, for he is incapable of gauging the excellence – the merit – of a performance and incapable of being moved by it . . . Himself alive to merit and desert, Hamlet feels he has been moved exceedingly by the Player’s speech” (Hamlet, 128). Curran’s final claim here seems to me directly and demonstrably contrary to Hamlet’s point. In Harry Frankfurt’s terms, we might say that Claudius has unsuccessful secondorder desires that fail to become effective volitions. He wants to want to repent and pray, but he doesn’t actually want to. Romans 7; Merchant of Venice 1.2.11–13. Targoff’s brief discussion of Hamlet 3.3 (Common Prayer, 1–4) is illuminating. Linda Woodbridge (English Revenge Drama, 37) writes that “Maynard Mack famously accused Hamlet of playing God, but by default, that was an avenger’s job.” This oversimplifies, quite flippantly, something that revenge tragedies often went out of their way to make intensely problematic. Minimally, we must say, he is causing them extended and avoidable purgatorial suffering. Eleanor Prosser’s 1967 Hamlet and Revenge, while often and fairly criticized for its extensive anti-revenge commitments, is nonetheless laudably and profitably attentive to these serious problems that troubled the minority tradition of Johnson and Steevens.


Notes to Pages 138–42

49. “Finding Freedom,” 165. 50. “Hamlet’s sense of ‘a divinity’ here is vaguer than faith in the specifically Christian god . . . Hamlet also syncretically appropriates aspects of conventional Christian and pagan ways of accepting death that were hitherto inaccessible to him: in the same scene he declares both a Calvinist trust in ‘special providence’ and a Stoic ‘readiness’ regarding his death, whenever it comes” (Scodel, “Finding Freedom,” 195). 51. Samuel Johnson, despite his misgivings about the play, found Hamlet’s “infer[ence of] the perpetual superintendence and agency of the Divinity” just, not only for Hamlet but for “every human being who reflects on the course of his own life” (The Plays of William Shakespeare, 291). 52. In “Hamlet’s ‘Too, Too Solid Flesh,’” R. Chris Hassel argues that Hamlet’s trajectory is one from “consuming egotism” (618) to a Lutheran “‘wisdom of the spirit,’ the selfless humility that can find his will in God’s will” (616) – a “new reality which dismisses his mind, his thinking, his judgment, in favor of the inscrutable will of God” (621). 53. As William Kerrigan puts it, “through the concept of ‘special providence’ . . . Hamlet aligns his countering will with the supreme author of history’s plot . . . Hamlet is now beyond the dilemma of wishing to escape his fate. Rather than trying to outthink God, he works with God, his fellow counterplotter” (Hamlet’s Perfection, 142–3). 54. Sinfield, “Hamlet’s Special Providence,” 97; Curran, Hamlet, 16, 217–18. 55. One of my recent undergraduates arrived independently at a view similar to mine, and perhaps put it better than I have: “Ironically, free will burdens Hamlet but predestination does not because his angst over his choices depends on his belief in free will . . . This is perhaps why he can choose to duel with Laertes with composure: his ‘end’ is divinely determined . . . For Hamlet – a character riven by doubt over the choice his father’s ghost has presented him – the absence of choice is perhaps the greatest possible gift from God. God’s sparrow never faces the sorrow of Hamlet’s dilemmas of choice” (Michael Robertson, 3332H essay, Oct. 8, 2014). 56. Mallette is wrong, I think – in an essay that gets many important things right – to equate Hamlet’s “divinity” with the simple telos of death (“From Gyves to Graces,” 353–5). Sinfield, on the other hand, correctly observes (“Hamlet’s Special Providence,” 93) that “even if this is no more than a faulty memorial construct it shows how one well-placed contemporary understood Shakespeare’s meaning.” 57. Institutes, 1.17.1, 1.17.6. 58. Even R.M. Frye, in a classic critique of overtheologizing critical treatments of Shakespeare, concedes that Hamlet is a play that overtly demands theological

Notes to Pages 142–52


60. 61. 62. 63.


reading: “for Hamlet, the context of readiness is essentially and explicitly Christian” (Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, 138). Hegel, at the end of his History of Philosophy, saw this as a failure of Hamlet’s prior and better strivings toward “the freedom of absolute self-determination,” and Catherine Belsey similarly sees the Hamlet of Act 5 as a self-betraying “inhabitant of a much older cosmos, no more than the consenting instrument of God” (The Subject of Tragedy, 43), but I hope I have made it clear that I do not think either Hamlet, or Hamlet, see it that way. Ford, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, ed. Derek Roper, 1.1.8, 1.1.4, 1.1.11. Subsequent references will cited parenthetically from this edition. The similarity of these lines to the spectacular solipsism of Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is striking: “She’s all states, and all princes I, / Nothing else is.” Gillian Woods observes that in the latter half of the play, “Giovanni places tautological emphasis on his own agency; [his] early attempts at confessional obedience are replaced by a forceful assertion of will. For Richard S. Ide this problematizes any providential view of the play which would put God in ultimate control: Giovanni’s will has narrative pre-eminence” (“Confessional,” 130).

4 Struggle: Donne 1. All poems (and relevant Walton references) will be cited from John Tobin’s readily available Penguin edition (Herbert, Complete English Poems). 2. As amplified by Calvin, of course, who, as Veith notes (Reformation Spirituality, 94), is likely being quoted in the last line of the poem. 3. Herbert, Complete English Poems, 311. Veith (Reformation Spirituality, 116) quotes Fish’s observation that the central tension in Herbert’s poetry is “the contradiction between the injunction to do work – to catechize, to raise altars, to edify souls, to rear temples, to write poems – and the realization, everywhere insisted upon, that the work has already been done.” 4. A closely related phenomenon which I will not directly discuss is the “experimental [as opposed to credal] predestinarianism” – the understandable and sometimes frantic efforts of some committed predestinarians to search their hearts and actions (and sometimes those of others) for evidence of election or reprobation – described by R. T. Kendall and Catherine Gimelli Martin, among others, and often associated with William Perkins, whose Golden Chaine and other works provided an extensive account (with complex outlines and diagrams!) of the logic, symptoms, and phenomenology of rigorous double predestination, by which “a man may know whether he be the child of God or no.”


Notes to Pages 152–4

5. See Veith, Reformation Spirituality, ch. 4, for a good discussion of the experience of this doctrine in the writings of Herbert and others. Many important recent critics – Dollimore, Sinfield, and Stachniewski among them – have badly misrepresented or misunderstood this. Veith quotes Coleridge (117): “If ever [a] book was calculated to drive men to despair, it is Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s on Repentance. It first opened my eyes to Arminianism, and that Calvinism is practically a far, far more soothing and consoling system.” 6. De servo arbitrio, 328–9 in Rupp and Watson. 7. Dillenberger, Images and Relics, 70. 8. Institutes, 3.2.16. It is important to note that, whatever he may have been, Calvin was neither naïve nor a fool, and the following paragraphs immediately recognize that “the experience of believers is very different from this,” punctuated with guilt, fear, worry, and doubt. His point is that the elect will struggle against these, deepen their reliance on God’s grace, and prevail to the end with its help. For much fuller clarification and development of this point, see Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance.” 9. Lambeth Articles, VI (Schaff, Creeds, 3.524); Stachniewski, Persecutory, 288; 39 Articles, XVII (Schaff, Creeds, 3.498). See Shuger, Habits, ch. 2, for a typically wonderful discussion of the problematics of predestination and assurance in Hooker, Andrewes, and Perkins. 10. Westminster Confession of Faith 18.1, italics added. The importance of the may is confirmed by 18.3: “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.” Schaff, Creeds, 3.638–9. 11. Session 6, ch. 12 (Denzinger, 381). See Pelikan’s excellent short discussion (CT4, 288–9) of the Tridentine response to Protestant assurance. 12. Denzinger, 386. 13. See Loewenstein, Treacherous Faith, for a wide-ranging recent study of early modern heresy. 14. The 1563 Heidelberg Catechism begins by asking, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”; the answer is “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ . . . Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” (https://www, emphasis added). See also Dixon, Practical Predestinarians, for a refreshingly openminded account of predestination’s powerful appeal in the late-Tudor and Stuart eras.

Notes to Pages 154–8


15. Stachniewski’s Persecutory Imagination argues vigorously for this side of the equation, and in so doing is a refreshing and useful counterweight to overly sanguine assessments of Calvinism. But the intensity of his polemical bias is such – though he claims anthropological disinterest, he unblushingly describes belief in the Calvinist God as a “bizarre” and “rebarbative” phenomenon of “fiction” and “collective projection” that tended to generate “obnoxious prigs . . . and quaking obsessives” (14, 3, 7, 22), perhaps a peculiarly paranoid form of mental illness – that it frequently leads him to exaggeration and distortion, and significantly undermines the value of his analysis. In this he resembles Sinfield and Empson, whose work he admires (3), and the virtues and flaws of which he reproduces faithfully. See Strier’s critique in “John Donne Awry and Squint.” 16. Moriah Raisis, ENGL 4330 essay, Dec. 1, 2016. 17. Martz, Poetry of Meditation; Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, 265. 18. “Augustinian Spirituality,” 560. Such phenomena are explicitly problems in Herbert’s poetry because he himself repeatedly identifies them as such – but Donne is not so sure. 19. Stachniewski (Persecutory Imagination, ch. 6) perceptively speaks of Donne’s “fundamental inability to forfeit, as Augustine wills to do, his independent identity” (268), and his “genuinely ambivalent attitude towards God” (270), and indeed gets a number of things quite right – but then, characteristically, overpresses them into claims of despair (at the sheer awfulness of Calvinism), masochism (in his irresistible, self-destructive attraction to it), and finally delusion and “self-bamboozlement” (272). Such latter claims are much more oriented toward denouncing Protestantism than toward understanding the poems. 20. “John Donne Awry and Squint,” 361. 21. “Experimental,” 371. 22. Reformation Spirituality, 119, 121, 125. 23. Stanley Fish, in an essay that contains much that is suspect, perceptively notes the presence in the Holy Sonnets of “a fierce and familiar desire to be master of his self, even of a self whose creaturely nature he is in the process of acknowledging” (“Donne and Verbal Power” [in Harvey and Maus, eds. Soliciting Interpretation], 242). 24. These get “reconciled” in later, more optimistic, theologically weaker systems like universalism (which has a sketchy history arguably going back as far as Origen, but doesn’t become widespread until after the Enlightenment). But of course agency gets radically weakened in such models too; if everyone will be saved, then what you do matters not at all to whether you will be saved or not. 25. The reading I will advance here thus requires neither resolution nor trajectory – which is a good thing, as there are compelling reasons to



27. 28.

29. 30.


32. 33.



Notes to Pages 159–65 think that neither are present in the Holy Sonnets, nor does either need to be (on this I agree with Stachniewski almost entirely). They depict not a triumphant progression or a consistent indictment, but a catch-22 predicament in which something is lost either way. Though Stringer and Parrish’s Variorum is now the most authoritative and exhaustive edition of the Holy Sonnets, I will for the sake of straightforwardness quote them from Gardner’s edition of the Divine Poems, and cite poems by their opening words. Doctrine and Devotion, Part I, esp. 1–32. But while Young effectively critiques over-Protestantizing readings of the Holy Sonnets, he perhaps goes a bit too far the other way. I call “As due” first without having any commitment to any particular order or sequence (though it is first or second in each of the major options, so it does confront a sequential reader early on). The textual situation of the Holy Sonnets is so complex that I don’t regard any sequence as having decisive primacy, and I agree with Wall and Stachniewski that analyses which rely on sequence or assert some trajectory are generally unpersuasive and misguided. Amazingly, he even makes himself the subject of a passive clause about his own creation: not “you made me” but “first I was made / By thee.” Protestant Poetics, 267. As Young (Doctrine and Devotion, 6) points out, though, even if the need for prevenient grace is what’s being asserted here, that does not necessarily clinch the case for a Protestant reading, as the Council of Trent maintained it as well. Veith notices this (Reformation Spirituality, 125), but he reads it as evidence of Donne’s ambivalence and diffidence, not as a genuinely radical move. Strier (“John Donne Awry and Squint,” 370–2) builds on Veith, but again focuses on identifying the poem’s failures. Strier simply concludes that once again, the resulting poem fails because it is not sufficiently Calvinist or self-reflective. Lines 10–12, emphasis added. The authoritative early print and manuscript sources have “Sins” or “sinnes,” neither of which, in the absence of an apostrophic possessive, makes clear whether a singular or plural is meant. Modern editors have of course added apostrophes, which artificially resolve the ambiguity by punctuational fiat. Like Yearwood, Mallett, Loewenstein, Milward, and Lewalski, who describes the speaker as “throwing himself without reservation upon Christ’s mercy” (Protestant Poetics, 269). Surely at least the last (and most influential) of these is an oversimplification of the poem. When Hamlet says to Ophelia, “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered” (3.1.91–2), he is asking (for reasons we won’t get into here) for her to perform an intercessory act of surrogate confession and contrition.

Notes to Pages 165–9

36. 37. 38. 39.




43. 44.



Confession is, of course, a remembering of one’s own sins, but the point is to do so in order that God would forgive and forget. “Predicament,” 218. “Donne’s ‘Goodfriday,’” 299. “‘A True Transubstantiation,’” 175–6. It’s true that the speaker asks that Christ’s image be restored in him. But this devotion doesn’t really require a body, as Harland asserts, and certainly not because the physicality of riding somehow enables a strictly corporeal mode of correction; nor does the speaker “become” Christ; nor is the suffering supposedly taken on by him analogous to Christ’s in the ways Harland suggests; nor would any of this necessarily entail that the westward riding is an act of divine providence and not of sinful waywardness. One of the most remarkable features of this poem’s critical history is the amount of (sometimes prestidigitative) critical energy that has been invested, sometimes by very good critics, in reconciling its east and west. But why do this? Why try to negate a conflict that Donne insists is fundamentally important? And why assume that it gets resolved, despite the speaker’s continuing westwardness? The fact that Donne, in “Hymn to God My God, In My Sickness,” renders planar geography into three dimensions, and asserts that West and East are one, does not justify the imposition (as done, for instance, by Sullivan) of this principle onto this very different poem – one which proclaims and depends upon the absolute difference between the two. “Restore Thine Image,” 26; “Donne’s Discoveries,” 69. Helen Gardner similarly sees the poem moving toward “penitent prayer” and “passionate humility” (Divine Poems, xxxiii–xxxiv) – though she also suggestively discerns a “silent figure whose eyes the poet feels watching him as he rides away to the west,” and who will reappear, in a different form, later in this chapter. “Submission, also, is restored as we recognize a character wondering and thankful in the presence of his seventeenth-century Protestant God and counting his blessings . . . [S]urely, closure is as complete as the nature of poems will allow when Christ presents himself to be spoken to” (“Predicament,” 221). I’ll argue below that none of this may actually happen in the poem. “Going in the Wrong Direction,” 14. Conventional usage, at least in Britain, uses “east end” to describe that part of the church in which the altar is located, and thus the end toward which the congregation faces to worship – regardless of the church’s actual geographical orientation. (Cf. OED “east end” 1.) As Augustine and his heirs (most famously Luther) had pointed out in a relevant analogue, a horse’s direction is typically determined by its rider. See Calvin, Institutes, 2.4.1.


Notes to Pages 170–6

46. As Strier correctly observes, “The modal form of ‘should’ is clearly the intended sense, but the moral sense bulks large” (“Going in the Wrong Direction,” 20). 47. In her book The Challenges of Orpheus – my thanks to her for allowing me to read a draft version after hearing an early version of this argument – Dubrow writes, “lyric, like other forms of poetry, is frequently figured and configured in the early modern period through the etymological root of verse, versus, whose principal meanings include ‘turning.’ The term is applied in that era to many types of poetry, but readers were surely especially aware of its relevance to lyric . . . In short, the paradoxical resonances of turning gloss lyric as both an achievement that may generate respect and delight and as a trick that may generate fear and guilt” (27, 31). 48. Theresa DiPasquale (Literature and Sacrament, 126–9) has very skeptically and smartly read the proffered “turn” of line 42 as a pushily conditional one which is indicative of a stubborn sort of egotism: I’ll do A if, and only if, you do B first. (Along these lines, see also Schoenfeldt, “‘That Spectacle”; Strier, “Going in the Wrong Direction,” 22–4; and Gilman, Iconoclasm, 146–7.) But she doesn’t fully develop the implications of her reading for the turn in line 37, and appears to assent to much of Sherwood’s misreading of it – even though she implicitly observes that it’s a false volta. 49. “Donne’s ‘Goodfriday,’” 297. 50. Fulfilling the Circle, 158–72. 51. See also Brooks’ puzzling contention that “the speaker finds it necessary to turn his back eastward toward Christ to receive corrections, reflecting both his physical and spiritual reorientation” (“Donne’s ‘Goodfriday,’” 293; italics in original). I’m arguing that none of these reorientations actually occurs. 52. Guibbory, for example, does both (“Donne’s Religious Poetry,” 236), and Sicherman, following Chambers, refers to the speaker’s “final, correct interpretation of his riding westward, sustaining the usual understanding of westward motion as good” (“Donne’s Discoveries,” 74). 53. Hamlet 3.2; Measure for Measure 2.4. 54. Martz says that “these parts [composition, analysis, colloquy] of a given exercise will, when properly performed, flow into one inseparable, inevitable sequence” (The Poetry of Meditation, 37; italics added). His qualification, as well as the connection between colloquy and will, indicates pretty clearly that something more than mere form – devotional sincerity, say, or emotional investment – is required for the desired outcome to be possible, let alone inevitable. 55. In “If faithful souls,” Donne observes that “vile blasphemous Conjurors . . . call / On Jesus name, and Pharisaicall / Dissemblers feigne devotion.” The issue here is a fundamentally interpretive one: since form and devotion are falsifiable and misusable, how can we know when they’re genuine, in

Notes to Pages 177–86

56. 57. 58.

59. 60. 61.


others or even in ourselves? This problem of empty or blasphemous devotional form is short-circuited in that poem, interestingly enough, by a “turne” directly to God (who “knowes best”), which makes an authentic and “true” devotional connection that presumably cannot be falsified. But the poem has denied us certainty on this, since both the turn and the poem are circumstantial “signes” of the sort that are under suspicion – and “Goodfriday,” I’m suggesting, is perhaps testing this principle to its very limit. As Halewood insists, this needs to be clearly distinguished from any notion of sin as a deliberate or even acceptable strategy to provoke grace. Devotions, 95, 151–2. Strier (“John Donne Awry and Squint,” 381) observes that “there are moments in his poetry when Donne deliberately presents fallacious arguments or ones that, as he says in the Metempsychosis, are stretched ‘to so nice a thinnes[s]. . . That they themselves breake.’ The question is how we are to recognize such moments . . . I think that moments of deliberate sophistry or absurdity are generally signaled in Renaissance texts, often explicitly.” The subtlety of this moment in “Goodfriday” would appear to deny us explicitness, but, unless our disinclination to see it is simply too powerful, it surely is a signal that something is awry. Of course some Protestants saw soteriological anxiety as itself evidence of election. See Cefalu, “Godly Fear,” and Rozett, Doctrine, ch. 2. All references to the Devotions, to Death’s Duel, and to Walton will be cited parenthetically from their convenient and widely available 1999 Vintage compilation. “[T]his whole world is but an universal churchyard, but our common grave, and the life and motion that the greatest persons have in it is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their grave, by an earthquake” (160).

5 Blame: Milton 1. Dualists, broadly speaking, argue that God is not omnipotent in a fully saturated way; optimists argue that evil, while it looks bad, really isn’t, and thus in some sense doesn’t exist; and voluntarists argue that though an omnipotent God may cause evil things to happen, the origin of those things in his sovereign will means that they are necessarily good in ways that humans simply cannot rationally understand. See Low’s nice summary in Modern Language Studies 15:4 (1985). 2. For a densely compact and witty overview of the state of these questions from Genesis to seventeenth-century England, see William Poole, Milton and the Idea of the Fall, esp. chs. 2–4. 3. Institutes, 1.15.8. While Adam did have choice and free will (and “reason, understanding, prudence, and judgment”) sufficient to “enable him to


4. 5.

6. 7. 8.




Notes to Pages 187–9 ascend even to God and eternal felicity,” his progeny who “seek for free will in man, now lost and overwhelmed in spiritual ruin . . . are evidently deceived.” Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.7. Milton explicitly rejects the first of these propositions to emphasize the second, but Cummings, writing of God’s discourse in Book 3 of Paradise Lost, finds it “not clear that, just by wishing it, he can make his knowledge of the future so pristinely epistemic, so clean of deontic imputation” (Literary Culture, 430). While I am a bit more inclined to take the poem at its word, Cummings’ reading connects directly and usefully to such unresolved problems in Christianity’s efforts to understand the Fall. Milton and the Idea of the Fall. Milton’s Good God, esp. ch. 6. He warns that “it would be unreasonable to introduce the question respecting the secret predestination of God” in this; Adam “fell merely by his own will.” This is followed, however, by a somewhat troubling addendum that implies lack, and re-raises the question of blame that Calvin so wants to avoid: “[Adam] was not endued with constancy to persevere, therefore he so easily fell” (Institutes, 1.15.8). That in turn is promptly foreclosed as beyond human inquiry or judgment, because “why [God] did not sustain [Adam] with the power of perseverance, remains concealed in his mind; but it is our duty to restrain our investigations within the limits of sobriety” (ibid.); God, while mysterious, is not to be blamed or questioned. See also 3.23.2, where God’s will is the absolutely and inscrutably good “cause of everything that exists.” Calvin himself says (Institutes, 3.23.1) that “election itself could not exist without being opposed to reprobation,” the latter not a suspended contingency or a passive phenomenon of mere demurral or preterition, but an act of the sovereign will by which God universally and unquestionably orders all. William Mann takes this view in describing (Stump and Kretzmann, eds., Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 46) the “sheer willfulness of sin” for Augustine: “Just as God’s will in creating has no cause, so a human’s will in sinning has no cause.” Fish implicitly aligns with this in seeing all the apparent precedents for the Fall in Paradise Lost as red herrings, temptations to think in terms of plot and causation rather than faithful obedience. But William Poole (Milton and the Idea of the Fall, ch. 2) demonstrates how “complicated and somewhat mysterious” Augustine himself was on the question of the Fall: sometimes insisting that it was preceded by radically tranquil innocence, sometimes asserting that the act must somehow have been preceded by an evil will, sometimes saying (as Calvin would) that these questions simply should not be pursued. Moral philosophy has taken a deep and sustained parallel interest in the conditions and implications of blame, going back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. While this chapter will not directly engage the present

Notes to Pages 189–92

12. 13. 14. 15. 16.


18. 19.




philosophical discourse, a good introductory overview of it can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( pr2016/entries/blame/). For an interesting discussion of the workings of blame in Milton’s polemical career, see Sherwood, Self, 259–91. Milton’s God, 13, 10; brackets added. See also Forsyth, Satanic Epic, and Bryson, Atheist Milton. Milton’s God, 245. Preface to Paradise Lost, 126. Leonard (Faithful Labourers, 460) emphasizes that Empson was not a Satanist, but simply saw Satan as frequently the lesser of two evils, and a truthful accuser of God. I use the term simply to denote a preference for Satan’s viewpoint over God’s in the poem. Fish’s detractors point out – to his delight, I think – that this argument puts him in the position of God, his opponents in that of Satan, and subjects all to the same totalizing bind in which Fish’s Milton’s God puts Adam and Eve. Contingency, plurality, freedom, and real choice get co-opted or condemned, in exchange for right-or-wrong simplicity. Faithful Labourers, ch. 7, 477–8. Faithful Labourers, 524. See also Fish (How Milton Works, 482–8, 518–20, and elsewhere) on the constitutive priority of one’s assumptions about God, from which devolves one’s perception of the order and meaning of the details of empirical experience (including, by implication, the reading of Paradise Lost). Readers dislike God’s self-justifying, self-righteous speeches, I think, because we dislike it when people do that. But God is not people; he is not even angels; he is the one figure in the poem for whom self-justifying tautology is entirely appropriate, and neither his justness nor his Godness depend on the support or testimony of any other being. For Milton, God is the one monarch whose authority is justified, and the one being whose justification and righteousness are rightly self-grounded. His speeches, while awkward and perhaps inevitably so, are ultimately the only possible grounding for Milton’s project of justification, and the only fully authoritative dispensation of blame. Milton largely sidesteps the philosophical question, of which medieval theologians and Aristotle were well aware, of whether something infallibly foreknown can at all be said to unfold contingently or freely. Luther, for one, declared unhesitatingly that “if God foreknows anything, it necessarily occurs,” and that “we are under necessity if the omnipotence and foreknowledge of God are accepted” (Bondage, 242, 244 in Rupp and Watson). But Milton’s God insists (3.111–25) that foreknowledge of how free beings will act is not decree or causation (as does De Doctrina 1.3). Danielson’s attempt (Milton’s Good God, 154–63) to account for the


22. 23.


25. 26.

27. 28.

Notes to Pages 193–7 problem relies on (a) a reassertion of the difference between foreordination and foreknowledge, with the latter possible in a nondeterminist sense, and (b) a construal of the problem as primarily literary/narrative (in the dissonance between human temporality and divine supratemporality) rather than logical or philosophical. In other words, he largely sidesteps it too, while concluding (probably rightly) that it is not a debilitating problem for the poem. Hughes (ed.), Milton, Complete Poems, 733. Stanley Fish (Surprised, 215n1) has, correctly I think (though Leonard (Faithful, 638–9) feels otherwise), pressed on the implication that “therefore” implies “that grace is due man because his error is someone else’s responsibility,” and contended that “the ‘therefore’ is not logical, but arbitrary: Satan’s presence in the garden is not really an extenuating circumstance; God merely chooses to make it the basis of an action that proceeds solely from his good will.” That is, the external deception involved in the human Fall does not excuse it, or obligate God to go easy on them, but provides God with a voluntary reason to distinguish it and mitigate the penalties through grace. On the implicit tension between Calvinism and Arminianism in this hybrid formulation, see Danielson, Milton’s Good God, 82–3, and Fallon, “Elect above the Rest” (in Dobranski and Rumrich, eds., Milton and Heresy). Both are smart and illuminating, though Fallon’s essay is overly inclined to speculatively psychoanalyze Milton, and to subjugate Paradise Lost to the likely Miltonic but non-trumping De Doctrina. In this he differs somewhat from the narrator, who asks “who” is to blame, and comes up with a relatively straightforward inculpatory answer: “Th’infernal Serpent; hee it was” (1.33–4). The apparent parallel with Satan’s voluntarily solo expedition in Book 2 is only apparent: Satan takes on risk, not punishment, and not to save those he loves, but to secure his political dominance over those he has already seduced (see 2.11–35 and 430–73). De Doctrina 1.10: “It was necessary that something should be forbidden or commanded as a test of fidelity . . . an exercise of jurisdiction.” Schoenfeldt perceptively argues that Milton “articulates autonomy in the language of obedience . . . obedience epitomizes rather than opposes the inner life of the subject . . . Milton, then, wishes to gear the achievement of liberty to the performance of obedience . . . Obedience is not a function of servility but rather the highest form of ethical autonomy” (“Obedience,” 364, 366). It is Satan who “confuses the heroic exertions of willed service with the slothful comforts of servility, and the happiness of obedience with the hell of purported command” (376). Fish similarly avers that “the assertion of a God who is really God is not at odds with human choice and its incredibly rich

Notes to Pages 197–203

29. 30.



33. 34. 35. 36.




history in ‘the Race of time’ (12.554); rather, it is his absolute power that at once makes available the space of human choice and renders it meaningful by providing it with a centre” (Surprised, lxiv). This has further extension in his failure to forbid Eve to work alone, and his knowing duplication of her sin. See, to take just one example by an excellent reader, Ricks, who asks, “If they could fall, were they not already in some sense fallen?” (Milton’s Grand Style, 99) – a point Fish cites (Surprised, 210) and then contends [rightly] is exactly wrong. Surprised, 208–16 and 254–61, but the core point is of course infused throughout the entire book. Revard essentially agrees when she contends that when Adam and Eve blame each other for the circumstances of the Fall rather than the act itself, “they are illustrating a familiar postlapsarian human tendency to argue circumstance rather than self as the designer of any evil or mishap that might occur” (“Eve,” 70). In contrast, J.B. Savage argues the unsatisfactoriness of acausality in “Freedom and Necessity in Paradise Lost.” See especially Rumrich’s passionate critique in “Uninventing Milton,” in which he prefers “Empson’s general vision of Milton as a poet searching after divine justice” to Fish’s “knuckle-rapping, peremptory prig” (250, 259). See also, though, Fish’s vigorous response to Rumrich (along with Kerrigan, Readings, and others) in the preface to the second edition of Surprised by Sin. See Fish (How Milton Works, 482–8, 518–20, and elsewhere) on the constitutive priority of one’s assumptions about God, from which devolves one’s perception of the order and meaning of the details of empirical experience. Compare this to 896ff, in which Adam still innocently regards Eve as the “fairest of Creation, last and best / Of all God’s Works,” and the question is simply “how art thou lost, how on a sudden lost?” This is also, somewhat paradoxically, the core logic of Amelia Lanyer’s exoneration of Eve in her protofeminist Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). This last line recalls us directly to Raphael’s scolding of Adam: “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; / Do thou but thine, and be not diffident / Of Wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou / Dismiss not her, when most thou need’st her nigh” (8.561–4). Nigel Smith observes that “leaving the choice so balanced deliberately conveys the dilemma in the theological issue, and the only crucial difference between God and Adam at this point and on this issue is that Adam does not have foreknowledge” (“Paradise Lost and Heresy,” 523). Revard concurs that “Adam, if he would affirm Eden the true mirrorimage of Heaven, must leave Eve free to choose, and trust, like God, that he has sent his creature forth sufficient to stand,” and argues that it is a disservice to Eve to exempt her from the general principle that “in the


39. 40. 41. 42.

43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49.


Notes to Pages 203–13 Miltonic universe the Almighty Father guards for each individual the right (indeed the responsibility) to dispose freely his being to triumph or to fail” (“Eve,” 74, 77). Just imagine, for example, how different things would be if God had said “I don’t recommend eating from that tree, but do what you think is best.” Bryson overstates the case but is not entirely wrong when he suggests that “the Father seems to be daring any and all to object” (Tyranny, 93). As Hobbes contends (Leviathan, 1.13.13), in the lawless state of nature, “nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place.” As Adam says to Eve, “Man hath his daily work of body or mind / Appointed, which declares his Dignity, / And the regard of Heav’n on all his ways; / While other Animals unactive range, / And of thir doings God takes no account” (4.618–22). The phrase is from the Nicene Creed (genitum non factum). Satan’s Arianism here is instrumental to his politics, as Abdiel’s consubstantialism is to his. Fish contrasts “plot-thinking” with “faith-thinking” in the preface to the second edition of Surprised by Sin, and in How Milton Works he parlays this into a 170-page reading of Paradise Regained. This is a challenge Satan will (chronologically) later echo inversely and almost verbatim as one of his best-known slogans: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (1.263). Schoenfeldt, Fish, and Danielson are useful correctives to the widespread adoption of this false polarity by literary critics. Hughes notes only lines 32–9 as earlier in composition, but Phillips includes 40–1 in the “six verses,” so it is unclear whether this pivot was part of Milton’s original conception or a later elaboration of it. Milton’s God, 67–71. Empson does acknowledge the opposing reading, and recognizes that at this point Satan has begun “rotting away” from his initial nobility. He even blames his escape from Hell on God, saying to Gabriel, “wilt object / His will who bound us? let him surer bar / His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay / In that dark durance” (4.896–9). If God wants his will to be done, he needs to make it impossible for us to do otherwise, and if he doesn’t that’s his own fault. See “Milton, Hobbes, and the Liturgical Subject,” and Liturgy and Literature, 181–92.


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Abel, 11 Abram/Abraham, 11–12 Acting, importance of in Hamlet, 127 Action overview, 28 agency and, 21–2 Augustine on, 109, 148 Calvin on, 109 Erasmus on, 242 in Hamlet, 127–31, 134–5, 137–40 Luther on, 148 moral accountability and, 22–4, 55 occurrence versus, 21–2 Paul on, 109 in revenge tragedy, 106–10 in The Spanish Tragedy, 114–15, 121 in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, 143–6 Adam Fall and, 186–7, 188, 255–6 in Paradise Lost, 191–2, 195–204, 211, 213, 214–22 will and, 11–12, 236 Aers, David, 54, 226 Agency overview, 29–31 action (See Action) Arminianism and, 74–6 Augustine on, 15–17 in Bible, 11–12 blame (See Blame) causation and, 11, 19–20 in Christianity, 32–3 demonic blame and, 204–14 in Doctor Faustus, 93–5 Erasmus on, 58, 65–7 God and, 11 Greeks and, 12–15 in Hamlet, 127–31 in “The Holdfast,” 148–9 insoluble problem of, 184–5, 223–4 in Julius Caesar, 1–3 literature and, 27–8

Luther on, 32, 65–7 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3–4 monergism and, 28, 231 moral accountability and, 154 in Paradise Lost, 4–5, 204–14, 222 paradox of, 5–10 in popular culture, 223–4 practical importance of, 20–1 problems of, 5–10 in The Spanish Tragedy, 116–19 struggle (See Struggle) synergism and, 231 will (See Will) Alcoholics Anonymous, 6, 225 Althusser, Louis, 8–9 Altman, Joel, 245 Andrewes, Lancelot, 141 Antony & Cleopatra (Shakespeare), 106 Apology for Poetry (Sidney), 26 Aquinas, Thomas generally, 18–19, 56, 76 Aristotle compared, 50 Augustine compared, 50, 51 Erasmus compared, 61 on grace, 52–3, 54–5 Pelagius compared, 53 on predestination, 50–1, 124 on will, 51, 54–5 Areopagitica (Milton), 193 Arianism, 260 Aristotle, 13, 23, 50, 225, 256–8 Arminianism agency and, 74–6 Articles of Remonstrance (1610), 74 assurance and, 158 determinism and, 18–19 Fall and, 187 grace and, 154, 163 Methodism and, 126 Milton and, 190, 193, 237 Paradise Lost and, 194


Index Arminius, Jacobus, 74, 237 Articles of Remonstrance (1610), 74 “As due” (Donne), 160–1 Assurance. See also Struggle Arminianism and, 158 Calvinism and, 152–4, 158 Calvin on, 152, 250 Catholicism and, 158 Donne on, 182 Luther on, 152 Paul on, 151 Protestantism and, 152–4 in The Temple, 149–51 “Assurance” (Herbert), 149–50 “At the round earth’s imagined corners” (Donne), 162–3 Augustine generally, 18–19, 26, 30, 173, 228, 230, 253 on action, 109, 148 on agency, 15–17 Aquinas compared, 50, 51 Erasmus compared, 61 evolution of views of, 231–2 on Fall, 186 on grace, 37–49, 136 on moral accountability, 38–40 Pelagius versus, 37–49, 61, 76–7 on predestination, 233, 235–6 on sin, 49, 256 on will, 40–4, 96 Aulus Gellius, 15 Bañez, Domingo, 74 Beckwith, Sarah, 226 Belsey, Catherine, 249 Bernard of Clairvaux, 76, 173 Bevington, David, 90, 104, 239 Beza, Theodore, 237 Bible agency in, 11–12 divine favor and disfavor in, 11 faith versus works in, 33–7 Fall (See Fall (Bible)) will in, 11–12 “Bitter-Sweet” (Herbert), 150 Blake, William, 189, 198 Blame overview, 28 agency and, 191–3 demonic blame, agency and, 204–14 divine blame, freedom and, 189–96 evil and, 185–6 human blame, responsibility and, 196–204 in Paradise Lost, 187, 188–9, 214–22 theodicy and, 185–6, 187–8


Bobzien, Susanne, 14 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 6 Bonner, Gerald, 43–4 Bowers, Fredson, 244 Bradwardine, Thomas, 18–19, 54, 69, 227 Brooks, Helen, 166, 173, 254 Bruno, Giordano, 9–10 Bryson, Michael, 260 Bunyan, John, 152 Burckhardt, Jacob, 8–9 Calcidius, 227 Calvin, John generally, 18–19, 26, 30, 161, 173, 227 on action, 109 on assurance, 152, 250 on determinism, 69, 124 on Fall, 186–7 on grace, 70–1, 72–3, 136, 154 on judgment, 243–4 Luther compared, 69–70 on predestination, 71–2, 233 on reprobation, 71–2, 256 on will, 70–1, 236 Calvinism generally, 9 assurance and, 152–4, 158 Catholicism versus, 73–4 Doctor Faustus and, 83–6, 98–101, 104–5 “Five points of Calvinism” (TULIP), 75 Hamlet and, 126, 141–2 Milton and, 193 Campbell, Lily B., 114 Cassian, 47 Cassirer, Ernst, 8–10 Catholicism assurance and, 158 Biblical hermeneutics and, 57 Calvinism versus, 73–4 “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and, 165–6, 171–2 grace and, 18–19, 55, 73–4, 154, 163 Hamlet and, 132 Paradise Lost and, 194 revenge tragedy and, 107–8 theater and, 125–7 will and, 73–4 Causation agency and, 11, 19–20 character and, 21–3 libertarianism and, 228 Chambers, E.K., 254 Character causation and, 21–3 moral accountability and, 22–4



Charles I (England), 75–6 Chaucer, Geoffrey, 54, 55 Chrysippus, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23–4, 124, 229 Cicero, 14, 15, 21 Clement VI (Pope), 55 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 249–50 Condign merit, 52 Confession in Hamlet, 252–3 Confessions (Augustine), 38, 41 Congruent merit, 52 Conrad, Joseph, 145 Contarini, Gasparo, 237 Co-operative grace, 52 Council of Orange (529), 48–9 Council of Trent (1545–1563), 73–4, 153–4, 252 Crucifixion, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and, 171, 172 Cummings, Brian, 64, 223, 226, 236, 256 Curran, John E., 125–7, 140–1, 247 Cusanus, 9–10 Danielson, Dennis, 187, 190, 257–8, 260 Davalos, David, 223 David, 11 Deadwood (television program), 226 Death, Donne on, 182–3 Deats, Sara Munson, 93 De causa Dei contra Pelagium (Bradwardine), 54 De dono perseverantiae (Augustine), 47–8 Defense of Poetry (Shelley), 189 De gratia et libero arbitrio (Augustine), 46–7 De Libero Arbitrio (Erasmus), 56–61, 66 Demonic blame, agency and, 204–14 De natura et gratia (Augustine), 38 De predestinatione sanctorum (Augustine), 47–8 Derrida, Jacques, 231 Descartes, Rene, 55 De Servo Arbitrio (Luther), 66, 68, 70 Determinism. See also Predestination Arminianism and, 18–19 Calvin on, 69, 124 in Doctor Faustus, 83–6, 90–1, 103–5 Erasmus on, 58–60 libertarianism versus, 17–18, 29–30 Luther on, 58–60 pessimism of, 125–7 in The Spanish Tragedy, 121–5 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (Donne), 181 Dihle, Albrecht, 15–17, 228, 232 Diodorus Cronos, 229 Diogenianus, 14 DiPasquale, Theresa, 254 Divine blame, freedom and, 189–96 Divine will in Hamlet, 131–2

Doctor Faustus (Marlowe) generally, 78, 147–8 overview, 28 agency in, 93–5 A-text versus B-text, 101–3 Calvinism and, 83–6, 98–101, 104–5 “conspired” construed, 103–4 determinism in, 83–6, 90–1, 103–5 ethics in, 93–5 God in, 92 grace in, 95–101 pessimism in, 87–8 problems in criticism of, 83–6 rejection of Christianity in, 88–90 repentance in, 91–2, 95–101 reprobation in, 103–4, 240–1 ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore compared, 145–6 will in, 93–5 Dollimore, Jonathan, 83, 87, 88, 249–50 Donne, John overview, 28 on assurance, 182–3 on death, 182–3 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 181 “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” (See “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” (Donne)) on grace, 158–65, 180–1 Herbert compared, 154–5, 157–8, 176, 178–9 Holy Sonnets (See Holy Sonnets (Donne)) “A Hymne to Christ,” 179–80 “A Hymne to God the Father,” 180–1 Poems, 147 on sin, 180–1 “Since she whome I lovd hath payd her last debt,” 179 on struggle, 154–60, 178–9, 182 “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” 181–2 on works, 180 Double predestination, 71–2, 84–5 Dualism, 184–5 Dubrow, Heather, 172, 254 Duns Scotus, John, 53 Dürer, Albrecht, 152 Eastwood, Clint, 242–3 Elizabeth I (England), 141 Ellis-Fermor, Una M., 93 Empson, William, 189, 190, 195, 198, 208, 212, 245, 250–1, 257, 260 Engels, Friedrich, 106 Engle, Lars, 240 Enlightenment, 17, 76 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Hume), 22

Index Epictetus, 16, 225, 229 Epicurus, 13–14, 187 Erasmus generally, 18–19 on action, 242 on agency, 58, 65–7 Aquinas compared, 61 Augustine compared, 61 Biblical hermeneutics and, 57, 65 on determinism, 58–60 on God, 185 Luther versus, 56–67 Pelagius compared, 61 on will, 56–61 “Erected wit,” 26, 96, 233 Esau, 59 Ethics in Doctor Faustus, 93–5 Eve Fall and, 188 in Paradise Lost, 195–204, 211, 213, 214–21 will and, 11–12 Evil, 185–6 Experimental predestinarianism, 249 Faith Paul on, 33–7 works versus, 33–7 Fall (Bible) Adam and, 186–7, 188, 255–6 Arminianism and, 187 Augustine on, 186 Calvin on, 186–7 Eve and, 188 Milton on, 187–8, 256 in Paradise Lost (See Paradise Lost (Milton)) Pelagius on, 186 Satan and, 188 theodicy and, 186–8 Ferguson, John, 232 Ficino, Marsilio, 9–10 First-order desires, 24–5, 96 Fish, Stanley, 190, 198, 221, 249, 251, 256, 257, 258, 260 Fitz, L.T., 241 “Five points of Calvinism” (TULIP), 75 Fleming, Juliet, 226 Ford, John. See ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Ford) Foucault, Michel, 8–9 Frankfurt, Harry, 23–6, 30–1, 229–30, 247 Frede, Dorothea, 15, 228 Frede, Michael, 15–17, 227, 228 Freedom, divine blame and, 189–96 Free will. See Will Freud, Sigmund, 26 Frye, R.M., 248–9


Gardner, Gardner, 251–2 Gillespie, Michael, 54–5, 235 Gnosticism, 184–5 God agency and, 11 in Doctor Faustus, 92 Erasmus on, 185 in Hamlet, 140–1 Luther on, 185 Milton on, 257 omnipotence of, 185, 255 in Paradise Lost, 190–5 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 78 “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” (Donne) Catholicism and, 165–6, 171–2 critical issues in, 165–9 Crucifixion and, 171, 172 direction and movement in, 169, 253 as failed devotional, 166–7, 176–8 issues in, 165–6 problems in criticism of, 165–9 Protestantism and, 165–6, 171–2 trope in, 175–6 “turn” construed, 167–9, 170–1, 172–5 Gottschalk of Orbais, 49 Grace generally, 6 Aquinas on, 52–3, 54–5 Arminianism and, 154, 163 Augustine on, 37–49, 136 Calvin on, 70–1, 72–3, 136, 154 Catholicism and, 18–19, 55, 73–4, 154, 163 co-operative grace, 52 in Doctor Faustus, 95–101 Donne on, 158–65, 180–1 in Holy Sonnets, 158–65 Luther on, 64–5, 137, 154 operative grace, 52 in Paradise Lost, 193–5, 220–1 Paul on, 47, 136 Pelagius on, 37–49 Protestantism and, 154 Grant, Patrick, 155–6 Greenblatt, Stephen, 7–10, 227, 238 Guibbory, Achsah, 254 Hackman, Gene, 242–3 Halewood, William, 165–6, 167–8, 171, 255 Hamilton, Donna, 124, 245–6 Hamlet (Shakespeare) generally, 147–8 overview, 26–7, 28 acting, importance of, 127 action in, 127–31, 134–5, 137–40 agency in, 127–31



Hamlet (Shakespeare) (cont.) Calvinism and, 126, 141–2 Catholicism and, 132 confession in, 252–3 divine will in, 131–2 God in, 140–1 Protestantism and, 132 repentance in, 135, 136 revenge in, 133–4, 135–7 sin in, 132–3, 135 suicide in, 131, 134–5 theology in, 142–3 ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore compared, 146 will in, 127–31, 137–40 Harland, Paul, 166, 253 Harris, Sam, 227 Hasker, William, 225–6 Hassel, R. Chris, 248 Hazlitt, William, 246 Heart of Darkness (Conrad), 98, 145 Hegel, G.W.F., 249 Heidelberg Catechism (1563), 250 Herbert, George generally, 251 “Assurance,” 149–50 “Bitter-Sweet,” 150 Donne compared, 154–5, 157–8, 176, 178–9 “The Holdfast,” 148–9 The Temple, 147, 149–51 Heywood, Thomas, 80, 81 Hippolytus, 14 Hobbes, Thomas, 30, 55, 230, 260 “The Holdfast” (Herbert), 148–9 Holy Sonnets (Donne) generally, 176 “As due,” 160–1 “At the round earth’s imagined corners,” 162–3 grace in, 158–65 “If poisonous minerals,” 163–5 “O my black soul,” 161–2 struggle in, 154–60 Honderich, Pauline, 86, 97 Hooker, Richard, 141, 153 Hughes, Merritt Y., 260 Human blame, responsibility and, 196–204 Hume, David, 22–3, 229 Hunter, G.K., 122–3, 124 Hunter, Robert, 92, 240 Hutson, Lorna, 244 “A Hymne to Christ” (Donne), 179–80 “A Hymne to God the Father” (Donne), 180–1 Hyperaspistes (Erasmus), 68 Ide, Richard S., 249 “If poisonous minerals” (Donne), 163–5

Incompatibilism, 17–18, 184 Indulgences, 55, 56 “Infected will,” 26, 96, 233 Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin), 68–73 Irenaeus, 187 Jacob, 11 James (Saint) generally, 18–19 Paul versus, 33–7 on works, 33–7 James, William, 228–9 Jansenism, 74, 75 Jensen, Phebe, 246 Jesus, 12, 152, 226–7 The Jew of Malta (Marlowe), 78–81 Johnson, Samuel, 136, 142–3, 247, 248 Judas, 59 Judgment, Calvin on, 243–4 Julius Caesar (Shakespeare), 1–3 “Just” (Radiohead), 223–4 Justice in Paradise Lost, 214–22 in The Spanish Tragedy, 113–15 Kane, Robert, 17 Kant, Immanuel, 55 Kendall, R.T., 249 Kenny, Anthony, 225–6 Kerrigan, John, 119 Kerrigan, William, 248 Knox, Bernard, 12–13, 227 Kocher, Paul, 93 Kyd, Thomas. See The Spanish Tragedy (Kyd) Lactantius, 187 Lambeth Articles (1595), 141, 153 Langland, William, 55, 241 Laplace, Pierre-Simon, 227 Laud, William, 237 Leff, Gordon, 53, 235 Leonard, John, 190, 257 Leo X (Pope), 56 Levin, Harry, 93 Lewalski, Barbara, 155, 162, 252 Lewis, C.S., 190 Libertarianism. See also Will causation and, 228 determinism versus, 17–18, 29–30 Pelagius on, 124 Literature agency and, 27–8 ancient, 11–17 early modern, 17–31 Liturgy and Literature (Rosendale), 9

Index Loci Communes (Melanchthon), 68 Loewenstein, David, 252 Long, A.A., 13–14, 228 Louis XIV (France), 74 Luther, Martin generally, 18–19, 26, 30, 55, 77 on action, 148 on agency, 32, 65–7 on assurance, 152 Biblical hermeneutics and, 65 Calvin compared, 69–70 on determinism, 58–60 Erasmus versus, 56–67 on God, 185 on grace, 64–5, 137, 154 Melanchthon versus, 68 Ninety-Five Theses, 56 on sin, 64–5 on will, 61–5, 257–8 Mallett, Phillip, 252 Mallette, Richard, 243, 248 Manichaeus, 57 Manicheanism, 16, 37, 68, 184–5, 231–2 Mann, William, 256 Marcus, Leah, 84, 101 Marlowe, Christopher Doctor Faustus (See Doctor Faustus (Marlowe)) The Jew of Malta (Marlowe), 78–81 Tamburlaine the Great (Marlowe), 78, 81–3 on will, 78–83 Martin, Catherine Gimelli, 157, 249 Martz, Louis, 155, 171, 175, 254 McAdam, Ian, 244–5 McAlindon, T., 242 Measure for Measure (Shakespeare), 225 Melanchthon, Philipp, 68 The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare), 32 Methodism, 75–6, 126 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare), 3–4 Milton, John generally, 237, 247 Areopagitica, 193 Arminianism and, 190, 193, 237 Calvinism and, 193 on Fall, 187–8, 256 on God, 257 Paradise Lost (See Paradise Lost (Milton)) on will, 257–8 Milward, Peter, 252 Mind-body problem, 27 Molina, Luis de, 73–4 Molinism, 73–4 Monergism, 28, 68, 231 Monotheism, 184, 185


Moral accountability action and, 22–4, 55 agency and, 154 Augustine on, 38–40 character and, 22–4 Greeks on, 15 in Paradise Lost, 188, 209, 212–13, 217, 219–22 Pelagius on, 40 will and, 73 Mulryne, J.R., 124, 245–6 Mumford and Sons (band), 224 Neill, Michael, 244, 246 Nicene Creed, 260 Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle), 23, 256–7 Niebuhr, Reinhold, 6 Ninety-Five Theses, 56 Noah, 11–12 Nun’s Priest’s Tale (Chaucer), 54 O’Connell, Patrick, 167 Oedipus Rex (Sophocles), 12–13, 15 Omnipotence of God, 185, 255 “O my black soul” (Donne), 161–2 Ontology in Paradise Lost, 204–14 Operative grace, 52 Orgel, Stephen, 240 Origen, 16, 228 Paradise Lost (Milton) overview, 28 Adam in, 191–2, 195–204, 211, 213, 214–22 agency in, 4–5, 204–14, 222 Arminianism and, 194 blame in, 187, 188–9, 214–22 Book 10, 214–22 Catholicism and, 194 demonic blame in, 204–14 divine blame in, 189–96 Eve in, 195–204, 211, 213, 214–21 fallenness in, 220–2 freedom in, 189–96 God in, 190–5 grace in, 193–5, 220–1 human blame in, 196–204 irony in, 197 justice in, 214–22 moral accountability in, 188, 209, 212–13, 217, 219–22 ontology in, 204–14 Protestantism and, 194 responsibility in, 196–204 Satan in, 191–2, 197, 204–17 theodicy in, 188–9, 190

280 Paradise Lost (Milton) (cont.) theology in, 4–5 will in, 191–3 Parrish, Paul A., 251–2 Pascal, Blaise, 74 Paul generally, 16, 18–19, 26, 30, 38, 228 on action, 109 on assurance, 151 on faith, 33–7 on grace, 47, 136 James versus, 33–7 on will, 40–4, 96 Pelagius generally, 18–19, 77, 126, 161 Aquinas compared, 53 Augustine versus, 37–49, 61, 76–7 Erasmus compared, 61 on Fall, 186 on grace, 37–49 on libertarianism, 124 on moral accountability, 40 persistence of beliefs, 49–50 on righteousness, 38–9, 40 on sin, 38–9 trial of, 45 on will, 40–4 Pelikan, Jaroslav, 37, 235, 237, 238 Peloponnesian War, 12 Penny, D. Andrew, 237 Perkins, Richard, 80–1 Perkins, William, 157, 237, 249 Personhood, 24–6 Petrarch, 55 Pharaoh, 59, 240–1 Philosophy ancient, 11–17 early modern, 17–31 Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni, 8, 9–10 Plato, 13, 30, 184, 230 Plotinus, 228 Poems (Donne), 147 Political theology, 243 Politics in Julius Caesar, 1–3 political theology, 243 Pollard, Tanya, 242 Poole, Kristin, 99, 240 Poole, William, 187 Pope, Alexander, 184 Poppi, Anthony, 226 Popular culture, agency in, 223–4 Predestination. See also Determinism generally, 6 Aquinas on, 50–1, 124

Index Augustine on, 233, 235–6 Calvin on, 71–2, 233 double predestination, 71–2, 84–5 experimental predestinarianism, 249 Principle of alternate possibilities, 23 Prosser, Eleanor, 247 Protestantism Arminianism (See Arminianism) assurance and, 152–4 Calvinism (See Calvinism) “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and, 165–6, 171–2 grace and, 154 Hamlet and, 132 Methodism, 75–6, 126 Paradise Lost and, 194 Puritanism, 126 revenge tragedy and, 107–8 theater and, 125–7 Purgatory, 55 Puritanism, 126 Radiohead (band), 223–4 Rasmussen, Eric, 90, 239 Rees, B.R., 44 Remonstrants, 74–6 Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Greenblatt), 7–8 Repentance in Doctor Faustus, 91–2, 95–101 in Hamlet, 135, 136 Reprobation Calvin on, 71–2, 256 in Doctor Faustus, 103–4, 240–1 Responsibility, human blame and, 196–204 Revard, Stella P., 259–60 Revenge tragedy overview, 106–7, 108 action in, 106–10 Catholicism and, 107–8 Hamlet (See Hamlet (Shakespeare)) Protestantism and, 107–8 The Spanish Tragedy (See The Spanish Tragedy (Kyd)) theology in, 107–8, 109–10 ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (See ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Ford)) Righteousness, Pelagius on, 38–9, 40 “Roll Away Your Stone” (Mumford and Sons), 224 Roman Catholicism. See Catholicism Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare), 78 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard), 247 Rozett, Martha Tuck, 88 Rumrich, John Peter, 259

Index Sanders, Wilbur, 88 Satan Empson on, 257 Fall and, 188 in Paradise Lost, 191–2, 197, 204–17 Schoenfeldt, Michael, 258–9, 260 Scodel, Joshua, 138–9, 141 Searle, John R., 228 Second-order desires, 24–5, 96, 247 Sedley, David, 13–14, 228 Sellars, John, 225 Seneca, 117–18, 122–3, 125 Serenity Prayer, 6 Shakespeare, William Antony & Cleopatra (Shakespeare), 106 Hamlet (See Hamlet (Shakespeare)) Measure for Measure (Shakespeare), 225 The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare), 32 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare), 3–4 Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare), 78 The Tempest (Shakespeare), 29 Shakespeare’s Freedom (Greenblatt), 9 Shell, Alison, 238 Shelley, Percy, 189, 190, 198, 208 Sherwood, Terry, 173, 254 Shovels and Rope (band), 224 Shuger, Debora, 9, 42, 223, 230, 232–3 Sicherman, Carol, 167, 254 Sidney, Philip, 26, 27–8, 96, 230, 233 Simpson, James, 226 Sin Augustine on, 49, 256 Donne on, 180–1 in Hamlet, 132–3, 135 Luther on, 64–5 Pelagius on, 38–9 “Since she whome I lovd hath payd her last debt” (Donne), 179 Sinfield, Alan, 9–10, 83, 85, 98, 99, 102, 140–1, 226, 238, 239, 241, 245, 246, 249–51 Smith, Nigel, 259 Soteriology, 27 The Spanish Tragedy (Kyd) generally, 147–8 overview, 28, 110 action in, 114–15, 121 agency in, 116–19 determinism in, 121–5 justice in, 113–15 revenge in, 115–16, 120–2 subplots in, 119 theology in, 110–13 Stachniewski, John, 83, 157, 226, 238–9, 242, 249–51, 252


Steevens, George, 247 Stoics, 13–17 Stoppard, Tom, 247 Streete, Adrian, 238 Strier, Richard, 156–7, 163, 168–9, 223, 226, 252, 253–4, 255 Stringer, Gary A., 251–2 Struggle. See also Assurance overview, 28 Donne on, 154–60, 178–9, 182 in Holy Sonnets, 154–60 in The Temple, 149–51 Suicide in Hamlet, 131, 134–5 Summa Theologica (Aquinas), 50–3 Superaddition, 231 Supplementarity, 231 Synergism, 73, 76, 231 Synod of Dort (1618), 75 Tamburlaine the Great (Marlowe), 78, 81–3 Taylor, Charles, 27, 42, 63–4, 227 Taylor, Jeremy, 249–50 The Tempest (Shakespeare), 29 Tempier, Etienne, 53 The Temple (Herbert), 147, 149–51 Theater Catholicism and, 125–7 Protestantism and, 125–7 theology and, 125–7 Theodicy blame and, 185–6, 187–8 Fall and, 186–8 in Paradise Lost, 188–9, 190 will and, 185–6 Theology. See also specific topic ancient, 11–17 early modern, 17–31 in Hamlet, 142–3 in Julius Caesar, 1–3 in Paradise Lost, 4–5 political theology, 243 in revenge tragedy, 107–8, 109–10 in The Spanish Tragedy, 110–13 theater and, 125–7 ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Ford) generally, 147–8 overview, 28 action in, 143–6 Doctor Faustus compared, 145–6 Hamlet compared, 146 revenge in, 143–6 Tolstoy, Leo, 1 Treatise of Human Nature (Hume), 22 TULIP (“Five points of Calvinism”), 75 Tyndale, William, 243–4



Unforgiven (film), 242–3 Universalism, 251 “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (Donne), 181–2 Valla, Lorenzo, 9–10 Veith, Gene Edward, 157–8, 249–50, 252 Waiting for Godot (Beckett), 98 Wall, John, 252 Walton, Izaak, 180, 182 Warren, Michael, 239 Weaver, Rebecca Harden, 48 Wesley, Charles, 75–6, 126 Wesley, John, 75–6, 126 Westminster Confession (1646), 153, 237 Wilco (band), 223 Wild Reeds (band), 224 Will overview, 28 Adam and, 11–12, 236 Aquinas on, 51, 54–5 Augustine on, 40–4, 96 in Bible, 11–12 Calvin on, 70–1, 236 Catholicism and, 73–4 divine will in Hamlet, 131–2

in Doctor Faustus, 93–5 Erasmus on, 56–61 Eve and, 11–12 in Hamlet, 127–31, 137–40 “infected will,” 26, 96, 233 Luther on, 61–5, 257–8 Marlowe on, 78–83 Milton on, 257–8 moral accountability and, 73 in Paradise Lost, 191–3 Paul on, 40–4, 96 Pelagius on, 40–4 personhood and, 24–6 theodicy and, 185–6 William of Ockham, 18–19, 53, 55, 235 Wittenberg (Davalos), 223 Wojciehowski, Dolora, 7 Woodbridge, Linda, 108–9, 247 Woodes, Nathaniel, 239–40 Woods, Gillian, 83–4, 249 Works Donne on, 180 faith versus, 33–7 James on, 33–7 Wycliffe, John, 57, 235 Yearwood, Stephenie, 252 Young, R.V., 159, 161, 252